In a show of force, the Cambodian opposition held a rehearsal Sunday of its planned mass protest against election results while thousands of government anti-riot forces staged a training exercise on enforcing crowd-control measures amid rising tensions in the capital Phnom Penh.
Several thousand supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gathered at the Democracy Park in Phnom Penh in the first of several "training" sessions ahead of its Sept. 7 protest against final election results expected a day later that could confirm that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has won in the July 28 polls.
CNRP officials gave "instructions" to supporters at the rehearsal Sunday to keep the mass protest peaceful and "to avoid any activities of violence," said deputy CNRP head Kem Sokha.
"Our rally today is a lesson for the Khmer people, politicians, civil society, and freedom advocacy groups to continue their struggle in a peaceful way in the future," he said as the party announced plans for a second rehearsal on Wednesday.
"The demonstration on Sept. 7 will definitely be a success because we have all come here today to wish for peace," he said.
But the government appears not to be taking any chances.
About 2,000 riot-police personnel armed with clubs and shields gathered at the capital's Diamond Island Center for training to cope with the opposition protest.
“The exercise is not unusual," Phnom Penh Police Chief Chuon Sovann said.
"In the past, the security forces used to do it to strengthen their capacity," he said.
Use of force
With hundreds of thousands of CNRP supporters expected to participate in the mass protest, Chuon Sovann said the security forces are being trained "to ensure the security and safety of general citizens and of those who participate in the demonstration."
He indicated that the security forces would not hesitate to use force to quell any violence.
"There should not be any worry. If the demonstration is staged peacefully, then there is no reason for the armed forces to use weapons," he said.
The government has deployed additional military forces, tanks, and armored personnel carriers in the capital city since polling day after both the CPP and the CNRP claimed victories in the election.
The CNRP has exposed widespread ballot irregularities in the election and has vowed to proceed with the planned mass protest unless its demand for an independent probe of its complaints is met.
The protest has been scheduled on the eve of an expected Sept. 8 announcement of final election results by the National Election Committee (NEC) that could confirm preliminary findings that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, the country's parliament.
The NEC's preliminary findings announced earlier this month support the CPP’s claims that it won 68 seats in the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, to the CNRP’s 55.
The CNRP, which claims it won at least 63 seats, said election irregularities included the removal of about one million voters from the electoral rolls.
Complaints under probe
With no new government one month after the polls, the Constitutional Council, Cambodia’s highest court, is investigating the CNRP’s complaints and is expected to rule on the legitimacy of the preliminary results before the final results are announced.
The council's investigations have revealed that packages with secured ballot information in three provinces have been tampered with.
Amid the tensions, King Norodom Sihamoni on Friday made an impassioned call for unity, saying the election dispute should be resolved based on the country’s constitution, the country’s “supreme law that we respect.”
“Lessons from history have shown that when our country splits it leads to tragedy,” he said in a message. “Therefore, I would like to appeal to all people to remain calm and maintain the country’s dignity.”
“The resolution of any national issues must be based on the constitution, and competent authorities must be allowed to resolve them according to what is defined in the constitution,” he said.
When final election results are announced on Sept. 8, they will “allow the National Assembly and the government to proceed according to the constitution in order to maintain stability,” he said.
Reported by Maly Leng and Saut Sok Prathna for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.