Leaders of Cambodia’s main opposition party held a mass protest in the capital Wednesday in a push for electoral reforms, but called off a march after the country’s electoral body agreed to study demands for changes in election procedures ahead of upcoming national polls.
The National Rescue Party (NRP), a coalition set to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party in July elections, had earlier threatened to march from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to the offices of the National Election Committee (NEC), defying warnings by the authorities.
The proposed march by some 3,000 people who had gathered at the park was shelved after the NEC agreed to look into reform demands, party officials said, warning that another mammoth protest would be held if the demands were rejected.
The authorities had permitted the NRP to hold a sit-in demonstration at the park, which NRP-aligned lawmaker Mu Sochua said was aimed at forcing the NEC to accept reforms recommended by rights groups and the U.N. to ensure a legitimate vote in July.
“We are protesting for free and fair elections, and for our future and the future of our country,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service, as demonstrators held banners warning of polls partial towards Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
NRP Deputy President Kem Sokha said Cambodia’s electoral system is in need of sweeping changes.
“We are holding this demonstration because we want to see a legal new government formed after the election, regardless of which political party wins,” he said.
Shortly after the protest started, NEC officials met the group at the park and agreed to accept its list of demands, which included a review of voter registration lists, reform of the NEC to make it more transparent, and permission for exiled NRP leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia to participate in the election.
The NEC’s Legal and Dispute Director San Taing Sidoeun pledged to submit the list to the electoral body’s senior leadership, but refused to elaborate on the likelihood that the NEC would adopt the recommendations.
“I will take these recommendations to the NEC for consideration,” he said.
List of demands
Kem Sokha said the NRP had called on the NEC to address reports by The Committee for Fair and Free Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) and the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) of irregularities in voting lists. The NRP says as many as 1 million people are missing from the lists.
“If the NEC and the government continue to use irregular voting lists without improving them, it is walking away from the pluralistic process and will lead Cambodia into political, economic, and social instability,” he said.
The opposition party also called on the government to reform the NEC and demanded that the electoral body allow Sam Rainsy to participate in the election, according to recommendations by U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi.
Local rights groups have charged that the NEC is biased toward the ruling party, but the NEC maintains that its nine members—who were approved by a CPP-dominated parliament last year—are independent and do not need to be changed.
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, facing a total of 11 years in prison over a string of convictions that critics contend are politically motivated. The NEC has said that he cannot stand in the coming elections because of his convictions.
Kem Sokha vowed to call another “massive demonstration” if the NEC ignored the NRP’s demands.
Agence France-Presse quoted the NRP deputy president as saying that his party would “not end our demands until the NEC introduces reforms and amends the voter list so that all Cambodian people can vote freely.”
He also appealed to the international community to pressure the Cambodian government over the demands, saying the NRP would refuse to accept election results if the polls are deemed unfair and Sam Rainsy is denied the right to participate.
The NEC has called the NRP’s accusations “politically motivated” and a move to drum up support for the newly formed opposition party ahead of the polls. The electoral body maintains that it has no say in whether Sam Rainsy can return to Cambodia.
Hun Sen said last week that Cambodia could descend into civil war if the opposition wins the upcoming election, following a pledge by Sam Rainsy to convict unnamed members of the government over their alleged roles under the bloody 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime.
An ex-member of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen is the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia, having ruled Cambodia since 1985. In 2009 he said he would continue to stand as a candidate until 2023.
Reported by Den Ayuthya and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.