Cambodia’s Opposition Set for Three-Day Mass Protests

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) will hold mass protests for three consecutive days beginning Wednesday, with plans by supporters to march on foreign diplomatic missions to highlight demands for a review of election results it says have been tainted by fraud.

The party said it expects some 40,000 supporters to gather at Freedom Park in the capital Phnom Penh for peaceful protests but the government has limited the number of participants to one-quarter that figure and barred them from staying overnight at the venue.

“Our goal in this demonstration is to demand justice for voters. Our second demand is to make sure the next election will be free and fair,” CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“I appeal to both demonstrators and authorities to refrain from any violent action during the demonstration,” he said.

CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, whose party has boycotted parliament and called for a U.N.-backed investigation into widespread voting irregularities in the July 28 polls, returned to Phnom Penh on the eve of the protest after a trip abroad aimed at drumming up support for international intervention in the election dispute.

Slammed for congratulating Hun Sen

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in a statement called on Cambodia’s donors and other countries to publicly press Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to set up an independent, internationally assisted investigation into the elections, which the government-appointed election body said was won by his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

It slammed the leaders of France, Australia, and Japan for sending congratulatory letters to Hun Sen despite numerous “credible” reports of an unfair election system, serious irregularities that may have affected the outcome, and an unwillingness by the ruling CPP to seriously address complaints.

“Hun Sen presided over a fundamentally flawed election,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Democratic leaders should skip the congratulations and instead insist on an independent investigation into malfeasance at the polls.”

Protest plans

On each day of planned protests, CNRP supporters will march from Freedom Park to deliver petitions to the U.N. Human Rights Office and foreign embassies, the party said in a statement on its demonstration plans.

During the night, documentary films will be shown in the park, it said.

But the Ministry of the Interior said Tuesday it will not allow protesters to remain in the area overnight and that the gathering must be restricted to 10,000 demonstrators.

“The ministry has granted permission to hold the protest from Oct. 23 to 25 but will not allow CNRP demonstrators to stay overnight in Freedom Park or other public places,” Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng said in a letter to the party.

“The number of demonstrators must not exceed 10,000 and the CNRP must control the demonstration in order to ensure it will be held peacefully and nonviolently and will not affect national security, public order, people’s lives, or state or private property,” the statement said.

The CNRP must inform authorities when and where it intends to submit the petitions to foreign embassies, it said, and City Hall will decide which routes they may march down to do so, according to the ministry.

Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told RFA that the authorities were aware the CNRP expected to have four times as many participants as allowed but refused to comment on how authorities will respond if the participants exceed the permitted number.  

Police officers at the demonstration will not be armed, he said, adding that the restrictions put on the protest were in accordance with the law.

“What we are doing is the same thing done in democratic countries to deal with mass demonstrations,” he said.

Protest security

Police have used force to scatter protesters during other mass demonstrations the CNRP has led in the nearly three months since the election, sparking clashes in which one man was shot dead when police opened fire on the sidelines of a Sept. 15 protest.  

Last week, police violently cracked down on villagers and monks demanding justice for the man, 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan, who was killed at an intersection near Phnom Penh’s Kbal Thnal Bridge.

On Monday, riot police cracked down on hundreds of demonstrators from civil society groups holding a public forum in Freedom Park, with authorities citing “training exercises” as the reason for clearing the area.

Paris Peace Agreements anniversary

This week’s CNRP demonstrations are timed to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, a U.N.-brokered peace deal that laid out a process ending decades of internal conflict in Cambodia, with an emphasis on building a democratic society anchored in human rights and the rule of law.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that France, Australia, and Japan are signatories to the Paris Peace Agreements and made treaty commitments to democracy in Cambodia.

The United States, Britain, and a number of other countries that were signatories have not sent congratulations to Hun Sen.

“Are France, Japan, and Australia more interested in making friends with an authoritarian leader in power for 28 years, or in supporting the democratic aspirations of a long oppressed people?” Adams said.

CNRP organizers have gathered thumbprints from supporters across the country for petitions to the missions of the U.N. and Paris Peace Agreements signatory countries in a bid to force Hun Sen’s government to conduct an investigation into vote fraud it says the CPP used to win the election.

“Supporters [from the provinces] will bring their petitions to Phnom Penh to give to the U.N. office and the peace accord signatory countries,” Kem Sokha said.

He added that the rally will be a nonviolent demonstration and the party should not be held responsible for any individuals who provoke violence.

Villagers barred from travel

The CNRP has said it expects supporters from 24 provinces and municipalities across the country to take part in the protest.

Northeast of Phnom Penh, villagers in Kampong Cham reported authorities had barred them from leaving the province to travel to the capital for the demonstration.  

Local CNRP activist Khut Kha said village officials in the province have urged residents not to attend the rally.

“[In one village] the village chief accused Sam Rainsy of being a traitor and asked us not to participate in the demonstration,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.