Demonstrating restraint

By: Thomas McLean - Posted on: September 7, 2013 | Cambodia

In photos: Contrary to some predictions, the highly anticipated Cambodia National Rescue Party rally in Phnom Penh was a peaceful affair

By Thomas McLean  Photography by Alex Pettiford and George Nickels

September 7 saw the Cambodian nation tested. As 20,000 Khmers congregated in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, the spirit of Cambodia shone through. While the thousands gathered here were praying, Cambodia as a whole prayed for a peaceful demonstration.

Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), had asked his followers to demonstrate peacefully through prayer and contemplation, despite their feelings of frustration due to the perceived lack of an independent, fair investigation into the 2013 general elections.

The atmosphere throughout Freedom Park echoed Rainsy’s mandate perfectly: citizens carried lotus flowers – the Buddhist emblem of peace; banners championing peace and democracy spanned as far as the eye could see; singing and chanting provided a serene backdrop to the proceedings.

A large military presence was expected – the lead up to the event had been dominated by news of military training drills and the influx of military personnel from all over Cambodia to the country’s capital. Their presence at the demonstration was minimal, allowing a jovial atmosphere to fill Freedom Park. There was no catalyst for unrest, although there were checkpoints in the vicinity with military police carrying riot gear.

After being blessed by monks, Sam Rainsy was joined by religious representatives and drew the masses into communal prayer. “We call to our spirits, to our ancestors, to the late King Norodom Sihanouk, to celebrate peace, prosperity and democracy, to respect our human rights,” he said. His words resonated with his followers as they repeated his mantra: “We wish to seek justice for our voters. Violence of any form ends now.”

Following Rainsy’s speech, icons of Cambodia’s current struggles took to the stage, including Tep Vanny, who led members of the Boeung Kak 13 and religious leaders as they addressed the crowd. The remainder of the ceremony was one of rejoicing, song and prayer.

Freedom Park epitomised the essence of what sections of the Cambodian populace are striving for. One attendee noted, “I don’t follow politics, but I support peace. I have been through so much in war, today is special; this is the first time people are standing up for their rights.”

 

 

 

 

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“Time for change” – Can Cambodia’s opposition gain strength in the upcoming election while Sam Rainsy remains its figurehead?