Cambodia’s government on Thursday warned of action if the country’s opposition party went ahead with plans to block highways and seize buildings in protests aimed at pushing for new elections following fraud and other alleged irregularities in July polls.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which says its victory in the July 28 election was snatched away due to poll fraud, launched daily protests since Sunday to force a re-election after its calls for an independent election probe were dismissed by the government.
Deputy CNRP President Kem Sokha on Thursday warned that opposition supporters would seize state buildings if the government continues to ignore opposition demands, a day after another senior party official spoke of plans next month to block key highways leading into the capital Phnom Penh, bringing traffic to a grinding halt.
“The demonstration’s organizers and demonstrators must respect human rights and their duties as Cambodian citizens. Individuals shouldn’t use their rights to abuse the rights of others,” a government statement said Thursday, rejecting any notion of new elections.
“The authorities and armed forces must implement their duties to uphold the law and to provide security to any protest to proceed peacefully and to avoid any violence.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said that if the CNRP sets roadblocks or seizes any government buildings, demonstrators would “face legal action.”
“The CPP doesn’t agree to a reelection because the election results were recognized by the [Cambodian] Constitutional Council (CCC),” he said, referring to the nation’s highest court.
While Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Phnom Penh municipal officials have branded the daily protests illegal, authorities have not engaged with the nonviolent supporters and Thursday’s statement was the first indication of action against protesters since the daily demonstrations began this week.
The statement said that the CNRP’s demonstrations were in violation of “democratic principles, rule of law, and negatively affected the people’s living standards and the country’s reputation,” urging the opposition to “respect the law.”
Khieu Kanharith warned the CNRP not to follow in the footsteps of the “Arab Spring” uprisings of the Middle East, saying the opposition wouldn’t be able to topple the ruling party because it enjoyed widespread voter support in the July elections.
Khieu Kanharith, who also represents the CPP, said the CNRP’s mass demonstrations were only a political ploy by party president Sam Rainsy to draw supporters.
“Sam Rainsy and the CNRP just want to keep the fire burning,” he said, referring to the latest tactic by the opposition, which has boycotted the National Assembly, the country's parliament, in protest against the election result.
“We will wait and see what they will do, but the most important thing is that they can’t breach the law.”
He warned that if the CNRP can use their supporters to hold demonstrations against the government, the government can also use its supporters to hold demonstrations against the opposition, without providing further details.
In reaction to the government statement, CNRP lawmaker Long Ry stressed that supporters had done nothing to provoke confrontations with the authorities so far during activities held around the city and originating from the opposition base of Freedom Park.
“So far, the marches and motorbike processions have proceeded smoothly with safety and security, mostly because authorities have not deployed many police or members of the armed forces,” said Long Ry, who is also responsible for security during the opposition’s mass demonstrations.
The fifth day of demonstrations also went off without a hitch Thursday, as protesters led by Sam Rainsy marched along National Highway No. 5 north of Phnom Penh, looping back into the city along Boeung Kak Lake and on to Freedom Park, where the party chief delivered a speech to the crowd.
In addition to repeated calls for a re-election, Sam Rainsy said that party second-in-command Kem Sokha was currently traveling “in the provinces” drumming up support for continued mass demonstrations.
After the July polls the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the country’s polls, declared the CPP the winner with 68 seats in parliament to the CNRP’s 55, but the CNRP claimed it won at least 63.
The NEC and the CCC have both said that all claims of poll irregularities have been investigated and rejected, making an independent probe sought by the opposition as unnecessary.
Talks between the two parties have stalled after their latest meeting last month yielded little progress, with the CPP calling on elected CNRP lawmakers to end their boycott and resolve any complaints from within parliament.
The CNRP has insisted that talks must have on the agenda discussions about an investigation into poll fraud, the resignation of election officials, and the implementation of recommendations from U.N. experts and NGOs on electoral and other reforms.
Political analyst Sok Touch told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that the government should call for a national referendum in order to avoid a political crisis in the country.
“The two parties can’t just stick to their demands, otherwise it will negatively affect the country’s economy,” he said.
NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha sided with the government, saying the CCC had already accepted the election results, adding that Cambodia has no law that allows for a re-election if all irregularities have already been resolved.
“The National Assembly is still functional. The law only allows for a re-election when the assembly is dissolved or only when irregularities remain unaddressed,” he said.
But Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) director Koul Panha said a re-election can be held according to Cambodian law in the case of political crisis or consent from all political parties which competed in the July polls.
“To have a re-election due to election irregularities would not work because the CCC and NEC have already ruled on the allegations,” he said.
“But if there is a political crisis which prohibits the government from functioning normally, then there should be a re-election.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.