Thousands of supporters of Cambodia’s main opposition party marched through the streets of Phnom Penh Monday calling for international pressure on the country’s government to postpone July national elections and reform its electoral procedures.
The demonstrators, led by Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy president Kem Sokha, gathered at Freedom Park and marched to the European Union Delegation to Cambodia and United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) to seek support for their demands.
The group wore white ribbons on their heads and carried with them petitions which also called for reforms recommended by the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations to the country’s electoral body, or National Election Commission (NEC).
“The CNRP, which represents the voters, would like the international community to push the NEC and the ruling party to respect recommendations raised by [U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia] Surya Subedi and other NGOs,” the petitions read.
The petitions called on the government to postpone elections until the NEC addresses allegations 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 CNRP says as many as 1 million people are missing from the lists.
“The election must be delayed at least one or two months to correct those mistakes,” the petitions read.
They also asked for the international community to apply “pressure against the government to unconditionally allow [CNRP] leader [Sam Rainsy] to return to the country safely” to contest the July 28 elections.
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 prison convictions.
The United States is among countries that have criticized the Cambodian authorities for disallowing Sam Rainsy from running in the elections, saying his case calls into question the vote’s legitimacy.
Military police, police officers, and anti-riot police were deployed near the demonstrators, who had not been given permission to march, but allowed them to proceed unhindered to the two offices, where Kem Sokha addressed the crowd.
“The ruling party must reform the NEC in order to hold a free and fair election,” Kem Sokha told the CNRP supporters, adding that support for greater transparency in the electoral process was “the strongest it’s ever been.”
Kem Sokha also invited Prime Minister Hun Sen to participate in public debates ahead of the July 28 polls, saying that the leader had “used his political position to attack the opposition” with impunity.
“I would like to leave a message to the prime minister: if you are brave enough, please come forward to join a debate,” he said.
A demonstrator named Srey Vy told RFA’s Khmer Service that she was not worried about her personal security and was excited to take part in the march.
“The last time we held a sit-in demonstration, but this time we decided we would march and we succeeded,” she said.
The demonstrators disbanded peacefully after delivering their petitions to the EU and OHCHR.
The rally marked the second mass protest by the CNRP in the capital in a push for electoral reforms.
Supporters staged a sit-in protest in late April, but a march planned as part of the demonstration was called off after the NEC agreed to study demands for changes in election procedures, which it later rejected.
Local rights groups have charged that the NEC is biased toward Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), 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.
Following Monday’s rally, Cambodian cabinet Spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the CNRP had breached its promise to authorities that demonstrators would not march.
He said Hun Sen was not obligated to respond to the demands of the opposition.
“Kem Sokha is not a judge—the voters are the judges,” he said.
“They will judge [Hun Sen’s] achievements as good or bad and that will be reflected in the July vote.”
Hun Sen recently reaffirmed that the government would not delay the election or audit voting lists under any circumstances.
According to law, he said, national elections must take place every five years in the fourth week of July.
Hun Sen, 61, has ruled the country for 28 years and earlier this month vowed to stay in power until he’s 74.
Reported by Van Vichar for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.