Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy led hundreds of supporters in a march through the capital and a meeting at his party’s headquarters on Sunday, abandoning plans to defy a government ban and rally in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.
Avoiding hundreds of anti-riot police deployed to the park, the supporters marched from the city center to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) offices for a “people’s congress” aimed at soliciting opinions on the party’s next steps amid an eight-month post-election deadlock with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party.
It was the CNRP’s first public rally since security forces violently dispelled opposition supporters from Freedom Park in early January.
The CNRP had planned to hold the people’s congress in the park, but Sam Rainsy announced Sunday morning that the location was moved to avoid clashes with security forces.
Police armed with batons and shields patrolled the inside of the park while the surrounding streets were closed off with steel barricades, following orders on Friday from the Ministry of the Interior refusing permission for the CNRP to gather there.
CNRP leaders had said earlier last week that they planned to push ahead with the rally in the park despite being denied permission by Phnom Penh’s City Hall to use the site.
Before the January crackdown the CNRP had staged regular mass demonstrations since the July 2013 elections, which it claims were rigged by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
Vow for nationwide demonstrations
After gathering Sunday morning near the Supreme Court to commemorate the anniversary of a deadly 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally, supporters shouted slogans calling for election reforms and Hun Sen’ resignation as they marched two miles (4 kilometers) to the party headquarters.
Speaking before the crowd in front of the party offices, Sam Rainsy vowed the CNRP would lead mass demonstrations across the country if talks with the CPP continue to falter.
“The opposition will continue to hold nationwide demonstrations and to lobby the international community to recognize that this government is illegal,” he said.He said the party’s main priority in any future negotiations must be getting the CPP to agree to an overhaul of the National Election Committee (NEC), the country’s main election body.
"We must change the National Election Committee first," he said.
The CNRP suspended negotiations on election reform earlier this month after the two sides demanded that members of the NEC, who are currently hand-picked by the government, be approved by a two-thirds majority of parliament.
Toward the end of the people’s congress, Sam Rainsy said CNRP leaders and supporters discussed and agreed on five points, including pushing for election reforms and resuming mass demonstrations.
"The first is to seek justice for voters. If there is a re-election, it must be free and fair and the NEC must be independent,” he said.
The party will also continue its boycott of parliament until election irregularities are resolved, and will seek the release of prisoners of conscience and work for a higher minimum wage for workers, he said.
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.
But authorities told the CNRP last week that the park is off-limits for gatherings while authorities investigate violence linked to the early January crackdown.
Authorities have accused the opposition of provoking violence that led to the early January crackdown.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.