Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy vowed Wednesday that his party will resume mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government now that a ban on public protests imposed amid a violent crackdown last month has been lifted.
Sam Rainsy made the remarks at a rally of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Kandal province, which went ahead undisturbed despite warnings from Hun Sen of ruling party counter-protests at opposition gatherings.
Thousands of supporters flocked to Wednesday’s rally—the party’s first since Hun Sen lifted the ban a day earlier—where Sam Rainsy called on them to join renewed protests over disputed July elections.
He pointed to the recent ouster of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych as reason for hope that demonstrations could bring down Hun Sen, urging Cambodia’s security forces to follow the example of the Ukrainian police in siding with protesters instead of clamping down on them.
"Be ready, brothers, to join the protests,” he said, according to a video of the event posted on Facebook.
“We will renew our demonstrations, and they won’t dare to shoot at us.”
“The Ukrainian police didn’t take orders from the dictators, they supported the demonstrators. That’s how dictators [are] removed from power. … I believe that in Cambodia, too, the military is patriotic, and they have relatives among us,” he said.
On Jan. 3, Cambodian security forces fired on striking garment workers, leaving five dead in what rights groups described as the worst state violence against civilians in the country in years.
Authorities instituted the ban on public protests a day later, as police violently dispersed CNRP-led demonstrations in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park that had been held alongside the garment worker strikes.
The party, which has boycotted parliament over the elections had, since July, held a series of protests in the park that were joined by tens of thousands of demonstrators calling for Hun Sen to step down.
Concerns of clashes
In his announcement calling off the ban, Hun Sen warned that if the opposition had the right to protest, so did supporters of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—raising raising concerns of possible clashes between the two groups at simultaneous gatherings.
He proposed splitting Freedom Park into two areas, in order to allow pro-government demonstrators to gather at the same time as opposition protests.
Several CNRP rallies held since the ban was imposed were disrupted by security forces and CPP supporters, while others were cancelled.
Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha had called off a planned meeting in Kandal on Jan. 21 over concerns that security forces and ruling party supporters were deployed to the areas to provoke violence.
But none showed up at Wednesday’s rally, where Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha stressed to supporters that the party stands firm on opposing official election results, despite its recent decision to join the CPP on a committee investigating the polls, Kandal province party director Phuong Sokha said.
Officials from both parties, which have been stuck in a political deadlock since the election, had said earlier this week they would send representatives to join the committee, though no date has been set yet for its first meeting.
“[Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha] clarified the CNRP’s stance on the formation of a coalition committee to investigate the election,” Phuong Sokha told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We want to explain to the supporters that our stance [on the election] remains the same.”
Cambodian rights groups and opposition figures have welcomed Hun Sen’s lifting of the ban but voiced concern that rallies held at the same time by political opposition and government-backed groups could lead to violence.
On Wednesday, Kem Sokha urged the authorities to avoid allowing two demonstrations to take place at the same time.
“When CNRP holds a demonstration, the CPP must hold a demonstration at a different location,” he said in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service.
Local rights group Adhoc's Investigation Unit Director Ny Chakriya said Hun Sen’s instructions to split Freedom Park in two to allow simultaneous demonstrations would be a violation of the country’s Law on Peaceful Assembly.
“This is an abuse of the law. Hun Sen’s order to construct walls to divide the Freedom Park is illegal,” he said.
Reported by Tin Zakariya, Den Ayuthya, and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.