Cambodian Officials Ask Opposition to Downsize Election Protest Rallies

cambodia-sam-rainsy-rally-sept-2013.jpg Sam Rainsy (C) raises flowers received from supporters during a visit to a market in Phnom Penh, Sept. 10, 2013.

Officials in Cambodia’s capital on Wednesday ordered the country’s main opposition party to scale back plans for mass demonstrations aimed at backing demands for an independent probe into election fraud charges.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Sam Rainsy, has vowed to hold a 20,000-strong protest in Phnom Penh for three consecutive days beginning Sept. 15 after the authorities rejected calls to investigate irregularities in the July 28 elections.

The country’s National Election Committee (NEC), which supervised the polls, confirmed over the weekend that Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had won the hotly-contested vote, prompting warnings from the opposition that it would rally against the result.

On Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Municipality asked the CNRP to drastically reduce the number of protesters and to cancel plans to march during the demonstration to be held in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, municipality spokesperson Long Dimong told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“They asked for a permit for 20,000 daytime demonstrators, but the city cannot authorize this much—we can only allow for 200,” he said.

He said the city would however speak with the Ministry of Interior before making a final decision.

Long Dimong said that while officials from the city and the CNRP remain far apart on the number of permitted demonstrators, the two sides had agreed that supporters attending the rally would not march outside of the park to circulate petitions and would “cooperate in facilitating safety, security and traffic.”

The CNRP criticized the city’s refusal to grant the demonstration permit according to its original plans, which would also include the right to erect temporary tents as shelters in the park, saying the move was “against the freedom of expression and existing law.”

The plans for a demonstration in the capital follow a rally on Saturday in which nearly 30,000 convened to back the party’s demand for an independent polls probe. CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha had called Saturday’s mass gathering a “success” and vowed that next week’s rally would be even “bigger.”

Parliament to convene

Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, who has called for the new parliament to be convened on Sept. 23 despite the political deadlock, returned on Wednesday to the capital from a one-month visit to Beijing for a routine medical evaluation and was greeted by both Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, among other politicians from the ruling and opposition parties.

The atmosphere between the two groups was tense and neither side acknowledged the other while waiting for the King’s arrival at the airport, according to observers.

Sam Rainsy has said his party will boycott the first post-election sitting of the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, unless the authorities agree to its request for a probe on irregularities, including claims that one million voters had been delisted from the electoral rolls.

He has also refused to accept the NEC’s ratified results showing that the CPP won 68 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, while his party gained 55 seats. The CNRP claims it won at least 63 seats in the election, based on its own calculations.

At the airport on Wednesday, Sam Rainsy told reporters that he would wait and see whether the King would take any further action on his return home.

The monarch has come under criticism from some groups for not intervening to resolve the political crisis, although they concede that his powers are limited.

“We respect the King, so we are waiting to hear what the King will say and then we will take it into consideration,” Sam Rainsy said.

“We cannot say anything yet. Let’s wait and see, and then we will comment.”

He said the CNRP would “stick to its plan” to hold the three-day demonstration in Phnom Penh beginning on Sunday.

NGOs warned

Also on Wednesday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior issued an open statement warning the country’s nongovernmental organizations not to dabble in partisan politics.

It also accused NGOs, without identifying them, of encouraging people to vote for a certain party, “attacking the national institution,” and asking the public not to recognize official election results.

It called such activities “inconsistent” with laws governing the operations of civil society organizations in Cambodia.

Local rights group ADHOC President Thun Saray hit out at the accusation, calling it “groundless” and demanding evidence to support the ministry’s claims.

“Please give us proof. Show us the evidence as to which political party we side with, which party we receive money or benefits from, and how we work for the alleged political party,” he said.

“Don’t just accuse us like that, because it is meaningless and shows a dishonest way of governing the country.”

Several Cambodian NGOs have questioned whether the country’s July polls were free and fair and have called for a transparent investigation into claims of election irregularities.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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