Peaceful demonstrations signal hope for divided Cambodian politics

Last week thousands of Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters attended a 3 day protest against perceived election irregularities. Unlike previous demonstrations, characterised by violence and heavy handedness by the authorities, this rally will be remembered for its peaceful nature and festive atmosphere.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), having held power for the last 33 years won 68 out of 123 seats in the July election. However, the CNRP claim they were defrauded out of the eight key seats that would have given them victory. Their response has been to boycott the National Assembly and to call for an independent investigation into election irregularities. The march delivered a petition of over 2 million thumbprints supporting this to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Opinion is divided on the CNRP’s stance. Not everyone believes they won the election.  Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, said that opposition politicians “should just admit that they didn’t get enough votes” and instead “emphasize there were significant irregularities.” Whilst the prominent historian David Chandler agreed that the CNRP’s “objection is legitimate” he argued that the opposition should accept their seats so as not to betray those that voted for them.

Internationally, the CNRP has also found it difficult to drum up the kind of support it would like. Claims of electoral wrongdoing have not deterred other governments from recognising Hun Sen’s victory. France, Australia and Japan have been criticised by Human Rights Watch for congratulating the CPP. “Democratic leaders should skip the congratulations and instead insist on an independent investigation into malfeasance at the polls” Brad Adams, of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Mindful of the seeming apathy to their cause, the opposition called on the international community to note the significance of the date of the first day of the rally. On the 23rd October 1991, the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements set Cambodia on a new course towards greater peace, democracy and human rights. The flags of Australia, Indonesia , the US, the UK, Japan, and other countries who had signed the agreements fluttered throughout the crowd.  By marching to the foreign embassies of the signatory states the CNRP hoped to encourage them to stand up for the principles of the accords.

Digging up the Paris Peace Agreements was scoffed at by the CPP. They pointed out the spirit of the Agreements had been enshrined in the 1993 constitution, which rendered Cambodia a sovereign power with the right to act as it chooses. However, perhaps aware the rally’s date would in itself draw international attention to the protest, the authorities were fairly liberal in their policing of this event. Despite protesters ignoring the guidelines set by City Hall – a 6pm curfew, and a 1000 person limit on the march – the event remained non-violent.

This change in attitude  is a sign that Cambodia is adjusting to the requirements of democracy. Ou Virak said that “In a democracy, people protest. It’s normal and police need to be equipped and trained to handle that.” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan agreed that both sides were learning.  “Both parties, the protesters and the authorities, learn from past experience. Authorities are learning to deal with protesters with discipline. [This] is a new culture for Cambodia.”

In marking a shift towards the protection of democratic culture, the rally itself is an achievement for the CNRP and offers hope for Cambodia’s political future.

By Eleanor Paton

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