Monks arriving to participate in the prayer ceremony.
Yesterday the CNRP held the first of its long-anticipated "mass demonstrations" in Phnom Penh.
Post-election opposition demonstrations were considered likely even before the elections, and after the close election results and reports of widespread irregularities, many assumed demonstrations to be imminent and inevitable. Yet the movement toward full fledged demonstrations has been slower and more measured than many expected.
On August 6 CNRP held its first large post-election gathering in Phnom Penh, referring to it not as a 'demonstration,' but as a thanks to supporters and a rally to announce the post-election state of affairs. It was held at Freedom Park and, on my observation, drew around 10,000 people. (The Cambodia Daily put the number at 'more than 5000.') In the following weeks, as negotiations and posturing between the parties continued and the police and military put on a display of readying for trouble, speculation ran rife about when and if and what kind of demonstrations there might be.
Three weeks later, on August 26 CNRP held its second mass gathering at Freedom Park, again not calling it a 'demonstration,' but a 'meeting' to inform their supporters of the state of negotiations and seek input on what to do next. Like all previous CNRP events, the mood and tone was largely positive and enthusiastic. Prior to the gathering there had been speculation that CNRP might be losing momentum in the lengthening delay to action, but this rally clearly drew more than the previous one. In my observation at least 15,000 people attended. (The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post put it at 'more than 10,000.') If the attendance numbers are any indication, CNRP was at the very least maintaining momentum.
Last week, in face of an impasse in negotiations over the investigation into allegations of election irregularities, the CNRP finally set a date for its first 'mass demonstration' - Freedom Park, 7AM-11AM Saturday morning, September 7, the day before the NEC was scheduled to release the official election results. The announcement was met with keen anticipation by approving supporters and a tense public.
In a surprising move a few days later, Sam Rainsy announced what seemed to be a fundamental change in the nature of the demonstration, saying that it was to be held in the spirit of prayer, meditation and non-violence, a Gandhian affair of sorts. Some CNRP supporters expressed confusion and frustration over the announcement, perhaps deflating expectations some.
In the lead up to the demonstration CNRP held training sessions at Freedom Park, teaching participants the techniques of non-violent protest. The Ministry of Interior issued basic regulations for the demonstration including capping attendance at 10,000. The CNRP stated that it expected at least 20,000. In the days immediately before the planned demonstration the government set up checkpoints on the main thoroughfares into the city from the countryside, barring travel to Phnom Penh for people suspected of coming to join the demonstration.
The day of the demonstration, early Saturday morning before it began, the police were already out in force, easily quadruple their unusual numbers, stationed around town, especially in sensitive areas. Crowd control barricades were piled streetside at the ready and riot police in full gear stood in groups with the usual traffic police and Gendarmerie. Water cannon firetrucks were parked strategically just off the main road though town (Norodom Blvd.)
Road traffic that morning was light. The markets were very slow with fewer vendors and customers. The city braced.
The demonstration came off without a hitch, without serious incident, much as advertised.
The event was very well organized. Bottled water, bread, slogan emblazoned headbands, stickers and lotus flowers were available for all participants. A medical station was set up and medics patrolled the edges of the park. Organizers helped direct and control the crowd. Walking paths and exits were taped off throughout the park.
At least within sight of the demonstration area, police presence was minimal and occupied primarily with traffic control.
By 7:15AM there were at least a thousand people in the park. Organizers distributed headbands and stickers through the crowd. People did not arrive in droves but in a continuous steady stream. By 8:30AM at least 5-6000 people were in the park and nearby side streets.
Well more than a dozen "Human Rights Observers," some identifiable by their blue shirts, presumably from the UN, CCHR and other NGOs, roamed around and through the crowds. I also noticed 4 or 5 foreigners in the crowd, participating in the demonstration.
Participants carried lotus flowers and flags and hand-drawn placards repeating the same 5 or 6 themes verbatim, most in both Khmer and English, including: "My Vote, My Life"; "My Vote, My Nation"; "Where is my vote?"; "There is Justice, There is Peace" and "We need an independent truth committee."
Like all previous CNRP rallies I have attended, the mood was positive and welcoming, though perhaps comparatively a bit toned down. The crowds were well behaved and orderly. As I wandered the park people seemed particularly interested in being photographed with their bilingual placards and eager to talk about their political complaints and desires. Similar themes were repeated in my brief discussions with different protestors: 'the election was a cheat, Vietnam and China are eating up Cambodia, people are still poor, Hun Sen needs to step down, Cambodia/CNRP needs help from America/UN.' Also, more than one protestor offered unsolicited reasons for what appeared to be the comparatively low turnout at the demonstration, citing countryside checkpoints and fear generated by the heavy police presence in the city.
Sam Rainsy arrived shortly after 8:00AM, spoke and prayed and spoke some more. Crowd numbers reached their peak over the next hour and a half, achieving about the same density and area coverage as the August 6 rally. The crowds never covered as much area nor were as dense as the August 26 rally. For some reason, crowd estimates have varied widely, but in my direct observation, if the crowd size estimates of the previous rallies as stated above are correct and can be used as a benchmark, there were approximately 10-15,000 people present at the peak of yesterday's rally, give or take a few thousand.
Almost as soon as Sam Rainsy finished speaking at around 10AM the crowds began to thin quickly, probably partly a result of the intense sun and rising temperatures. It was an exceptionally hot and sunny morning. Many sought refuge from the sun under trees and in the shadows of nearby buildings.
During the later half of the demonstration dozens of protestors gathered along the Norodom Blvd Naga Bridge at the back of Freedom Park, cheering and waving to passing cars and motos, snarling traffic a bit and garnering some supportive responses.
By 11:45AM the crowd was down to a few hundred enthusiastic supporters clustered near the stage. Music and rally cheers continued, people danced, and the protest took on tone of a party as the remaining crowd slowly melted away. The riot police that had been positioned around town could be seen packing up their equipment and leaving their posts by mid-afternoon.
Immediate reaction to the demonstration has been mixed, some questioning its effectiveness, others citing it as a new approach and part of a long term strategy. Reporting on the event, the Wall Street Journal noted that some analysts say "the demonstration points to rising momentum for the (CNRP)", but this does not seem supported by numbers. The CNRP called for a "mass demonstration," urging its supporters to turn out in numbers. Yet the turnout was probably lower and was certainly no greater than the last CNRP rally, falling short of the party's stated expectations. While this does not necessarily indicate a loss of momentum, neither does it point at a "rising momentum," but rather, at best, leaves open the question 'Is the CNRP maintaining momentum?' And it will likely remain open at least until the next demonstration, when and if there is one.
Offering free lotus flowers to supporters arriving at the demonstration area.
An oft repeated theme.
Joining the prayer.
From the back of the crowd during Sam Rainsy's talk.
One of many who asked me to photograph him with his protest placard.
The after party.