Cambodia’s main opposition party plans to resume mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government by holding a “people’s congress” in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Sunday to gauge public feedback on stalled election reform negotiations.
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy said his party has applied to the city authorities for permission to hold the demonstration, which will commemorate the anniversary of a deadly March 30, 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally.
But city officials have not yet approved plans for the event, which would come nearly three months after the CNRP’s last mass protests were violently suppressed by security forces.
Sam Rainsy’s announcement of plans to restart the demonstrations follows the apparent breakdown earlier this week of the CNRP’s talks with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) aimed at ending an eight-month political deadlock over disputed July 2013 polls.
The CNRP, which claims the CPP rigged the elections and has demanded fresh polls, suspended its participation in the talks on Monday after the CPP repeatedly refused its demands for an overhaul of the country’s main election body.
Sam Rainsy said that at Sunday’s event, which the CNRP expects more than 5,000 people to attend, party leaders will discuss plans for negotiations with the CPP and other strategies.
He urged authorities to allow the demonstration to go forward undisturbed, warning that there are more opposition supporters than CPP followers in Phnom Penh.
“I believe that the CPP will not be so stupid as to prevent such a gathering, otherwise it would look very bad for them,” he told reporters at a press conference.
The last round of CNRP-led mass demonstrations in Freedom Park was violently dispersed on January 4, a day after police shot five people dead in a brutal crackdown on garment workers protesting for higher wages.
Shortly afterward Hun Sen issued a ban on public protests, which he rescinded late last month while warning that any opposition demonstrations could be met with simultaneous pro-CPP rallies.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dymong said his office had received the CNRP’s request to hold the people’s congress but was currently not allowing any public gatherings in Freedom Park while authorities investigate violence amid the early January protests.
City officials would meet with CNRP officials to discuss their request to use the site, he said.
“We are reserving the location for an investigation,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“City Hall is not allowing any gatherings at Freedom Park while the investigation into the violence has yet to be concluded,” he said.
Authorities have accused the opposition of provoking violence that led to the early January crackdown.
If it goes forward the demonstration will fall on the 17-year anniversary of the grenade attack, which injured more than 150 people including Sam Rainsy and killed 16.
Rights groups have accused Hun Sen's administration of involvement in the attack, saying those responsible have gone unpunished.
Call for EU to referee
In a separate announcement on Wednesday, the CNRP said it had asked the European Union to act as a referee in the party’s dispute with the CPP.
Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha put the request to a delegation of seven visiting EU parliamentarians led by German diplomatic Werner Langen, chair of the EU’s delegation for relations with the countries of Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), party representatives said.
The CNRP leaders asked the delegates, who are scheduled to meet with Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministers Hor Namhong and Cabinet Minister Sok An later on in their visit, to tell Hun Sen’s government the opposition will not budge on demands for free and fair elections, public affairs director Mu Sochua told RFA after the meeting.
“Sam Rainsy asked the EU delegate to pass this message on to the CPP,” she said.
The meeting came a day after Sam Rainsy returned from a trip to Australia and New Zealand to drum up international support for the party’s demands.
The party has made repeated calls to the international community to pressure Hun Sen’s government on election reform, as well as calls to the U.N. for an independent probe into last year’s elections.
Reported by Van Vicha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.