Nearly 20,000 opposition supporters gathered yesterday in Cambodia’s capital to cheer their leaders’ demands for an investigation into alleged election irregularities, just a day before the victory of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party is to be ratified.
Final results from the vote six weeks ago gave 68 National Assembly seats to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and 55 to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. The opposition says it would have won the majority of seats had the election been fair.
The opposition says protests will continue until an independent committee looks into claims of voter disenfranchisement and vote tampering in the July 28 election. However, the government-appointed National Election Committee has rejected the demand, and Hun Sen has made it clear he intends to take office and continue his 28 years in power.
The 55 seats won by the opposition represent a sharp improvement on the 29 it held in the last assembly, and its strong performance — also reflected in a close popular vote — came as a surprise. The party has suggested its lawmakers may boycott the assembly sessions in protest at the failure to investigate its claims of unfairness. The new parliament is supposed to be seated within 60 days of the election and ruling party leaders say it can convene without the opposition.
Opposition leaders have emphasized non-violence, amid concerns raised by the government’s deployment of troops and armored vehicles to the capital after the election. Hun Sen has a reputation for dealing harshly with opponents. The government, through sympathetic media outlets, had played up fears of violence in an obvious effort to discourage protests.
However, yesterday’s demonstration was peaceful, with opposition supporters holding up signs with messages such as “My vote, my nation” and “There is justice, there is peace.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the crowd that the Cambodian people have suffered from a culture of violence for 40 years, and that should end now.
Cambodia plunged into civil war in 1970, and experienced the holocaust of Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s, when an estimated 1.7 million people died as a result of their radical communist policies. Under Hun Sen, a culture of violence and intimidation of the poor and powerless has been widespread.
In recent years, land grabbing by government cronies has led to forced evictions, sometimes accompanied by deadly violence. The issue has caused popular resentment, to the political benefit of the opposition.
“Today, Cambodia is opening a new page, the page of ending the culture of violence,” Sam Rainsy said, with the crowd echoing his words with a cheer of “End violence.”
Several monks attended the demonstration, despite a ban against doing so by Cambodia’s top Buddhist authority. One monk, Ngim Saossamkhan, said he was aware of the ban, but believed he had a right to attend.
“As monks, we can’t be part of any party, but I support peace,” he said.
Demonstrators dispersed after several hours, but opposition leaders say they will gather again tomorrow unless the National Election Committee yields. They have asked that any announcement of the results be postponed, and have called on Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihamoni, to intervene.
Observers do not expect clashes between demonstrators and security forces, as occurred after some past elections, but political analyst Kem Ley said the risk of violence might grow if opposition supporters continue to take to the streets for many days.
Chan Aunleng, a 24-year-old student demonstrator holding a Cambodian flag, said she did not think the demonstrations would easily sway the National Election Committee, but that she would continue to join future protests “for real democracy.”