Phnom Penh, Cambodia – With a blank, sober expression on his face, one of hundreds of protesting Buddhist monks adorned in an orange robe held up a cardboard sign that read: “Today and Tomorrow No Need Hun Sen Forever.”
The placard said it all about why tens of thousands of people this week poured into Freedom Park – a concrete square in the capital built for such protests – to express anger at election results that Cambodia’s opposition party says were rigged, and failed to reflect the will of the people.
Cambodia’s monkhood has traditionally been aligned with the government, and senior religious leaders here often chastise those choosing to buck that trend. But the young monk holding up the cardboard sign was one of almost half the country’s 9.6 million registered voters who went to the ballot box on July 28, voting against the decades-long rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Those who voted for the newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) say they were not only fed up with the 28-year premiership of Hun Sen, but were demanding a host of reforms to the electoral process, the judiciary, the country’s Anticorruption Unit, as well as land rights – especially for poor villagers whose land is at risk to large-scale property and agriculture projects.
The people are changing and there is a movement of young people that must see reform in social development, and the government must reform and adapt to the new situation and the new culture.
The protest movement led by the CNRP – a less than two-year-old collation between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party – poses a different threat to the government of Hun Sen, analysts say.
Not only does the prime minister now have to appease members of his own party upset by the seismic shift in support towards the opposition and the consequent loss of power in the National Assembly, he must now listen to the opposition and pack away his autocratic leadership style in order to survive.
“This election is quite different from previous elections,”said political analyst Kem Ley. “People right now realise the social issues, political issues and environmental issues and know what needs to be reformed.
“The people are changing and there is a movement of young people that must see reform in social development, and the government must reform and adapt to the new situation and the new culture.”
Chaos on the streets
During the election campaign, Hun Sen drove home the party’s message that without the CPP chaos would break out on the streets and the country would return to the days of the genocidal Khmer Rouge rule, Ley said.
“Even in the central committee of the CPP, which has had support for Prime Minister Hun Sen, right now they are … discussing change of the party, how the CPP will manage and run the government. They think about the new leadership and paving the way for the young educated people,”Ley said.
So far, the CPP has stood by Hun Sen, and senior officials have said he will remain as prime minister during the next mandate.
On Sunday, when tens of thousands of opposition supporters – many of whom were wizened-looking farmers from rural provinces – arrived in Phnom Penh for a three-day “camp-in”against allegedly rigged election results, the calls for change were raucous.
This was no Tahrir Square in Cairo, but the excitement in the air was palpable.
“I would like to appeal to all of you who are present today to collect more relatives to join demonstrations tomorrow to push the ruling party to find justice for all of us,”CNRP leader Sam Rainsy told the crowd, ahead of high-level talks between leaders of both sides to resolve the political deadlock.
|Cambodian Buddhist monks and protesters in Phnom Penh [AFP]|
At several points during Rainsy’s speech the crowd erupted into cheers, urging him and the party’s vice president, Kem Sokha, to continue with their quest to dethrone Hun Sen and make the electoral system fair.
By all accounts, negotiations between Hun Sen and Rainsy on Monday and Tuesday produced little agreement. Reform of the National Election Committee was agreed on in principle, though no details on how this would happen were released. There was also no deal on the opposition having its own television station to compete with a long list of CPP-aligned media channels.
Although the two parties agreed to make a new voter-list amid allegations that 10 percent of registered voters could not find their names, with the election now over it was a concession that came too late in the day. Images of Hun Sen at the talks showed him beaming with a wide smile across his face, perhaps an effort to shake off his strongman image.
Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Phnom Penh on Sunday, at one point breaking through a razor-wire barricade manned by riot police on the riverfront. But it appears the opposition’s quest for change is going nowhere fast.
As thousands tried to go home in the south of the city on Sunday, a huge traffic jam built up because of the erected barriers. As tensions rose, stones were thrown by youths, resulting in security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas. One man was shot dead with a bullet through the head, and at least seven others were wounded.
In the early hours of Monday at Freedom Park, where poor villagers were sleeping on mats under, some opposition supporters were on their feet talking about the previous day’s incidents.
“These elections were unfair and just because these three days of protests are coming to a close, we’ll be back if we don’t get what we want,”said Chheang Vuthy, a CNRP protester, eating sticky rice with coconut milk provided by demonstration organisers.
We don't need to form any committees that do not comply with the law, because the National Election Committee and Constitutional Council have already announced the election results.
For the first time in Cambodia’s 20 years of democracy, the opposition has managed to force the CPP to sit down at the negotiating table and discuss real reform. However, the opposition is now confronted with a new dilemma: How does it go about transforming popular support into tangible results?
With 55 parliamentary seats to the CPP’s 68, the CNRP could still render the country’s National Assembly illegitimate if it boycotts the first session scheduled for Monday. By law, at least two-thirds of lawmakers must be present in order for parliament to open.
According to the analyst Ley, if the opposition is to make further inroads in its push for political change, it must continue organising mass protests nationwide.
“In the near future, they need to gather many people. They need to organise a group culture of different activities, and a new style of demonstration perhaps on a nationwide level,”he said.
But observers note that CPP leaders are a wily bunch who are used to holding on to power in times of contention.
Prak Sokhon, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, said told Al Jazeera after talks that both the CPP and CNRP were moving towards a compromise on some points. However, the CPP would absolutely disagree to requests to form an independent inquiry to investigate the election results.
“We don’t need to form any committees that do not comply with the law, because the National Election Committee and Constitutional Council have already announced the election results,”he said.