Nearly 30,000 people converged on Cambodia's capital on Saturday to back an opposition demand for an independent probe into widespread election irregularities ahead of an official announcement that is expected to endorse a poll victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen's long-ruling party.
At the rally in Phnom Penh's Freedom Park, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said it would hold mass protests across the country if the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC) proceeds with its announcement of final results on Sunday.
When CNRP President Sam Rainsy asked the crowd whether they would agree to continue holding peaceful protests if the demand for an impartial probe is not met, he received a roaring approval.
The opposition has claimed that, among irregularities, one million voters had been delisted from the electoral rolls. At the rally, some held up placards that read, "Where is my vote?," "My vote, my life" and "When there is justice, there is peace."
"We demand that the NEC not make the final election result announcement for the sake of justice," said deputy CNRP president Kem Sokha at the rally, one of the largest opposition demonstrations in recent years. "If you are adamant, we can be adamant too," he said.
The NEC said it would announce on Sunday the final results of the July 28 elections in which the panel's preliminary counts support claims by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) that it won 68 parliamentary seats to the CNRP’s 55.
The CNRP claims it has won at least 63 seats and has accused the NEC of stealing votes from the opposition and giving them to the CPP, whose performance in the elections is its worst in 15 years based on the preliminary results.
Part of the crowd at the mass protest. (RFA photo)
Once the NEC announces the final results, the opposition may have exhausted all avenues of mounting a legal challenge questioning the election findings.
The Constitutional Council, the country's top arbiter, on Friday dismissed all complaints of election irregularities filed by the CNRP although it criticized and sought punishment for NEC staff for mishandling secured ballot packages.
The CNRP's call for an independent probe on poll irregularities, including U.N. participation, has already been rejected by the authorities.
Sam Rainsy said the country's monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, should intervene to resolve the dispute, a call hailed by the crowd.
Hun Sen, 61, who has been in power for 28 years, has said he will form a government despite the opposition charges.
Saturday's demonstration was peaceful even though some state-controlled media reports had suggested the possibility of violence after the government deployed troops and armored vehicles in the capital days after the election.
Many police officers were present in civilian clothes but were seen carrying guns. They kept a low profile but closely monitored the crowd and directed traffic.'End to violence'
Monks were among those who attended the mass protest. (RFA photo)
Sam Rainsy told the rally that Cambodians have endured enough violence for four decades, including the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, and that should end now.
"Cambodia today is opening a new page, the page of ending the culture of violence," he said. "End to violence," the crowd shouted back. Many held lotus flowers symbolizing peace.
A demonstrator from Kandal province, one of the areas where the opposition claimed secured voting records had been found unsealed, said he attended the protest to seek justice.
"Apparently, the people voted overwhelmingly for the CNRP, but the outcome showed the CNRP lost the election," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another demonstrator, calling herself "grandma Heang," said, "I’m here because I have faced difficulty with the loss of my land and forests."
"So, I’m here to demand rights and freedom for our future generations. I am very happy and excited to participate in the demonstration."Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.