The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) held the first of three consecutive days of non-violent mass protests in the capital Wednesday, with tens of thousands of supporters flocking to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to demand an independent probe into claims of election fraud.
Thousands of riot police were stationed along the park and other parts of the city, but largely looked on as protesters held a rally and marched on the U.N office to deliver a petition to the world body calling on it to back demands for the poll investigation.
During the rally, CNRP President Sam Rainsy said the mammoth rally, coming three months after the disputed July 28 elections, proved that the public would stop at nothing until they were granted justice.
“Some people said that the demonstrators are tired and don’t want to join in protests with Sam Rainsy and [CNRP Deputy President] Kem Sokha,” the opposition leader said, prompting a loud cheer of “We are not tired!” from the crowd, many of whom wore headbands with slogans asking “Where is my vote?”
“More people are demonstrating [than in previous protests]. This shows [that the protests are about] the people’s love for their country—not their love for Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha—and especially that you love justice.”
The CNRP has boycotted the National Assembly, or parliament, since it convened for the first time last month after elections in which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was declared winner by the government-appointed Election Committee, despite claims of vote tampering.
According to official results, the CPP won 68 parliamentary seats to the CNRP’s 55.
The CNRP has held several mass protests and plans many more to push for a probe into the election irregularities and to question the legitimacy of the government of Hun Sen—now 28 years in power.
Sam Rainsy, who returned this week from a trip to Europe and the U.S. to drum up support for the irregularities probe, added that Cambodia’s current state of “peace without justice” did nothing to serve the people. “We want peace with justice,” he said.
Wednesday’s demonstration coincided with the 22nd anniversary of the U.N.-brokered Paris Peace Accords, which laid out a process ending decades of internal conflict in Cambodia and which also emphasized building a democratic society anchored in human rights and the rule of law.
During the rally in Freedom Park, Kem Sokha called on the government to comply with the agreement, saying it is still relevant to Cambodia.
“The Paris Peace Accords are so important—the  signatory countries promised to restore and develop Cambodia and that is why there is an annual donor meeting to fund the country,” he said.
“Why does the CPP say the Paris Peace Accords are no longer valid? If so, why does the CPP continue to ask for funds from foreign countries?”
Kem Sokha said that the CNRP would not further discuss power sharing arrangements for the government or in the National Assembly unless the CPP first provided “justice for the voters.”
Several rounds of talks earlier between the CPP and CNRP had ended in failure.
On Wednesday, CNRP supporters carried a petition including two million thumbprints to the U.N. Human Rights Office in Phnom Penh, calling on U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to pressure Hun Sen’s government to allow a poll probe.
The petition, signed by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, and a copy of which was obtained by RFA, says the lack of an investigation into election irregularities and the unilateral formation of the National Assembly by the CPP “take Cambodia back to a one-party system of governance.”
“We seek your assistance in resolving the current political deadlock by ensuring the enforcement of the Paris Peace Accords, the sole foundation for multi-party democracy and development for our nation,” it said.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in a statement this week called on Cambodia’s donors and other countries to publicly press Hun Sen’s government to set up an independent, internationally assisted investigation into the elections.
It slammed the leaders of Paris Peace Accords signatories France, Australia, and Japan for sending congratulatory letters to Hun Sen despite numerous “credible” reports of an unfair election system, serious irregularities that may have affected the outcome, and an unwillingness by the ruling CPP to seriously address complaints.
The CNRP plans to submit petitions to several foreign embassies during the next two days of demonstrations, officials said Wednesday.
Opposition officials estimated the protest crowd at more than 70,000, though Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press put the number at Freedom Park at between 10,000 and 15,000.
Ny Chakrya, head of human rights and legal aid for Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), told RFA’s Khmer Service that Freedom Park was packed and the crowd had overflowed into nearby areas, estimating the number at more than 100,000.
He said it was the largest rally by the opposition since a mass gathering in September prompted clashes with police, leaving one person dead and several injured.
Earlier this week, hundreds of protesters had gathered at Freedom Park to air their grievances against the government, but were promptly cleared out by anti-riot police wielding weapons and electric batons who claimed they were holding “training exercises.”
The Ministry of Interior on Wednesday reminded the CNRP to comply with an agreement it made with municipal officials in Phnom Penh, limiting the number of participants to 10,000 and barring them from staying overnight at the park during the three days of protests.
“The demonstration’s leaders and participants must adhere to the agreement made in order to ensure the event takes place peacefully and without any violence,” the ministry statement said.
“The demonstrators must cooperate with authorities in order to protect public security. Authorities and police officers must be responsible, patient, respect their code of ethics and try their best to cooperate with demonstrators to maintain security and order.”
CNRP officials have said that the rally will be a nonviolent demonstration and the party should not be held responsible for any individuals who provoke violence.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.