In an Unsettled Cambodia, Preparing to Confront the Government


Justin Mott for The International Herald Tribune

Taking to the Streets in Cambodia: Opposition leaders geared up for a protest Saturday against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.


Published: September 5, 2013

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — He screamed, “This is so unjust!” But Yann Rith, a 25-year-old resident of Phnom Penh, did not struggle against the group of men who carried him away.

A supporter of Cambodia’s political opposition, Mr. Yann Rith was taking part this week in a practice protest, a role-playing exercise intended to show other supporters how to submit peacefully if arrested by the riot police.

“We will be nonviolent!” Mr. Yann Rith declared, as he patted down his rumpled, button-down shirt.

Cambodia’s opposition is planning to confront the country’s authoritarian government with a demonstration on Saturday to protest what it says was widespread cheating in the July 28 national election that the ruling party says it won. But in a country scarred by years of civil war and genocide, the leaders of the opposition are proceeding cautiously, doing everything they can to convince the public that the protest will be peaceful even as government security forces have begun deploying.

The planned demonstration here in the capital is scheduled to last only three hours and will remain in the public square that Cambodian law designates as a protest area. The opposition carried out two rehearsals this week with thousands of supporters listening to instructions on how to resist any provocations.

“We don’t want a revolution, we don’t want a brawl,” Kem Sokha, the vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, told supporters gathered for a rehearsal on Wednesday. “We just want justice.”

Nearly six weeks after the election, which a number of monitoring groups say was marred by widespread voting irregularities, Cambodian politics remain in a deadlock. The leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy, early on called for a special committee to investigate the reported irregularities and decide whether new balloting or recounting was necessary. But hopes of a negotiated solution have faded as Mr. Sam Rainsy says his attempts to engage the governing party “led nowhere.” And there seems little doubt who has the upper hand.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power 28 years, has a firm grip over the army, the police, the judicial system and nearly every other institution in the country, analysts say. As a symbol of his power, the Khmer-language news media, which toe the government’s line, preface the prime minister’s name with a Cambodian honorific that roughly translates as “His Highness.”

Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh, said he supported the right of the opposition to protest but was skeptical it would threaten the governing party’s grip on power.

“How are you going to topple the government with a three-hour demonstration?” he said.

Mr. Sam Rainsy says he is counting on the protests to maintain the momentum and energy of the election campaign. “They will look bad when they come with their guns and water cannons to crack down on us,” he said in an interview, referring to security forces. “We will offer them flowers.”

The election in July was a political milestone for the country because the governing party, the Cambodian People’s Party, lost its near-total monopoly on power, taking 55 percent of the seats in Parliament, down from 73 percent in the previous election, according to unofficial results. Mr. Hun Sen — who with the help of the Vietnamese in 1979 drove out the murderous Khmer Rouge — appeared chastened by the result, and in the days after the election, he spoke in conciliatory terms about his relations with the opposition.

But in recent weeks, he has returned to his characteristic combative style, honed over years in which he has accumulated unrivaled power. Once official election results are announced, which is expected on Sunday, members of his party say, with or without the cooperation of the opposition, they will proceed with the opening of a new session of the National Assembly and form another government, possibly as early as next week.

The government, which is portraying the protest as an attempt to instigate riots, has deployed military units to the outskirts of the capital, and the riot police are conducting their own rehearsals.

“It’s a rebellion,” said Phay Siphan, the secretary of state in the Council of Ministers, which functions as a cabinet. “They plan to use Cambodian bloodshed as their red carpet to power.”

Mr. Phay Siphan, a member of the governing party, said there would be some “policy adjustments” in the new government and shuffling of posts inside the party.

“We are going to get rid of some of our old policy makers,” he said. “The anticorruption unit will be stronger and more active than before.”

Kem Lay, a researcher who has conducted surveys and studied social trends for government ministries as well as for the United States Agency for International Development, said Cambodian intellectuals and human rights advocates were ambivalent about their political choices.

Mr. Hun Sen’s party is resented for allowing land to be seized from farmers, for the opaque way that contracts and concessions are given to groups of businesspeople close to the party and for stifling the independence of the judiciary.

But Mr. Kem Lay said he also saw autocratic tendencies in Mr. Sam Rainsy’s leadership of the opposition — and a generalized lack of competence and experience among the candidates that the party put forward in the July election. “It would have been a big disaster if the opposition had won the election,” Mr. Kem Lay said. “They are not ready.”

Although the result of the election remains disputed, Mr. Kem Lay points to one positive outcome: he noticed that villagers and low-level government officials were speaking their minds, being more analytical and critical of government policies, a development that he describes as the maturing of the Cambodian electorate.

At the rehearsal on Wednesday, a 34-year-old woman named Mai Simorn surged into the crowd with a wad of Cambodian money in her hands. She had collected donations from workers at the garment factory where she works as a seamstress and handed them to the organizers of the protest.

Divorced from her husband, Ms. Mai Simorn earns a base salary of about $80 a month at the factory, barely enough to support her two children. Saturday is a workday, but she plans to ask for half of the day off to attend the protest.

“Our life is not easy,” she said. “We need to dare to protest.”

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