Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner

Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner | © George Steptoe 2013

A popular Cambodian protest song, first composed a decade ago but with remarkably enduring popularity, uses the allegory of a filthy shirt worn everyday for too long to chastise the festering stasis cultivated under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Banned for many years, it was performed by a live band in front of 20,000 protestors on the first of a three-day demonstration held by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) over complaints of electoral cheating at the national elections, now a whole 87 days ago.

CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, dressed as ever in his pristine white pressed shirt, marched from the stage in Freedom Park to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights some 1600m away flanked by tens of thousands of protestors. He popped inside to deliver a petition of over two million thumbprints demanding an independent investigation into election irregularities, a petition he described afterwards as being “the will of the Cambodian people”.

“We are very grateful to the representative of the UN in Cambodia to have accepted the petition and to act as a [custodian] to keep in safe haven those thumbprints. They told us that they will send the petition to the UN headquarters in New York to ensure their safety” he said.

After the broad ten-point legislative agenda announced at the People’s Congress, today’s demonstration saw the CNRP’s dress code return to a well-worn wardrobe favourite. Gone was any talk of their program of reforms to prevent land-grabbing, deforestation and rights abuses. In its place was a redoubled focus on the opposition’s central complaint: electoral fraud, plain and simple.

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Mu Sochua, Cambodia’s highest ranking female opposition politician, explained that the CNRP “haven’t abandoned the rest [of our policies] but at this point we’re focused on an independent investigation and electoral reform” a tactic that Sochua stated was to avoid any misinterpretation of a CNRP desire for power in its own right.

It’s an outfit that the CNRP will be sporting for the rest of the three-day protest, and tomorrow the same petition will be presented to the French Embassy where the committee leader of the Paris Treaty (signed 22 years ago today) still works, according to Kem Sokha’s closing remarks.

The on-going campaign for international support – chants of “we need the U.N. were bellowed on street 51 whilst Rainsy ducked into the high commissioner’s office  – continues unabated. That the prominent Republican Senator Lindsey Graham had submitted a resolution to the US Senate calling for military assistance to the Kingdom to be suspended until a credible investigation into election irregularities was launched initially looked to be something of a diplomatic coup. Mr. Rainsy’s jet-setting campaign perhaps bearing fruit?

It was mooted in the very same breath it was uttered by Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia development expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy who, speaking to Kevin Ponniah of the Phnom Penh Post, said that it was unlikely to be practically effectual.

The display of government force at today’s event was light, marking a departure from tactics used at the CNRP’s last three-day protest at which razor-wire blockades adorned seemingly every street and at least six demonstrators were seriously injured. Another, 29-year-old Sok Chan was shot dead. Mu Sochua suggested this was an indication that “the local authorities are learning to face the reality that using force is not appropriate at all.”

Others may argue it was a shrewd calculation on incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen’s part to avoid risking a repeat of clashes that briefly brought the Kingdom of Wonder onto the world news radar in the wake of the previous demonstration.

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Those who were bracing for bloodshed, according to an over-excited Time headline, will have been relieved although there was one fluttering moment when roughly 30 riot police galloped across Sihanouk Boulevard to man the barricade lining Rue Pasteur after Mr. Rainsy and his entourage breached the threshold to pay tribute to Chea Vichea, the assassinated leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The site became a photo-op spot for Mr Rainsy and Kem Sokha on their march back to Freedom Park, by which time the military presence had increased five-fold.

Protestors shouted “Yuon” (a racially-charged term for Vietnamese people) at riot police as they passed the same place and Mr. Rainsy claimed as he wrapped up the day’s proceedings that the only support for the CPP was from “ghost voters and the Vietnamese”.

Mr. Rainsy pledged to collect a million more signatories for his petition and today’s promising turnout suggests his attire isn’t unravelling entirely. But suffering from a lack of wardrobe inspiration, tired garbs may start to show at the seams.

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