Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Leading a 'Battle of Nonviolence' ; in Cambodia, Scarred by Long War, Opposition Chiefs Tread with Caution

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Leading a 'Battle of Nonviolence' ; in Cambodia, Scarred by Long War, Opposition Chiefs Tread with Caution

Article excerpt

In a country scarred by years of civil war and genocide, the leaders of the opposition are proceeding cautiously with plans for a political protest on Saturday.

He screamed, "This is so unjust!" But Yann Rith, a 25-year-old resident of Phnom Penh, allowed a group of men to carry him away.

Mr. Yann Rith, a supporter of Cambodia's political opposition, was taking part this week in a practice protest, a role-playing exercise intended to show other supporters how to submit peacefully when arrested by the riot police.

"We will be nonviolent!" Mr. Yann Rith declared, as he patted down his rumpled, button-down shirt.

Cambodia's opposition is planning to confront the authoritarian government with a demonstration on Saturday to protest what they say was widespread cheating in the national election on July 28. But in a country scarred by years of civil war and genocide, the leaders of the opposition are proceeding cautiously, doing everything they can to convince the public that the protest will be peaceful.

The demonstration on Saturday will only last three hours and will remain in the public square that Cambodian law designates as a protest area. The opposition carried out two rehearsals this week with thousands of opposition supporters listening to instructions on how to resist any provocations.

"We don't want a revolution, we don't want a brawl," Kem Sokha, the vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, told a crowd of several thousand supporters gathered for a rehearsal on Wednesday. "We just want justice."

The opposition, he said, is leading a "battle of nonviolence."

Nearly six weeks after the election, Cambodian politics remain in a deadlock. Yet there seems little doubt who has the upper hand.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power 28 years, has a firm grip over the army, police, judicial system and nearly every other institution in the country, analysts say. As a symbol of his power, the Khmer-language news media, which toe the government's line, preface the prime minister's name with a Cambodian honorific that roughly translates to "His Highness."

Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh, said he supported the right of the opposition to protest, but he was skeptical that it would threaten the governing party's grip on power.

"How are you going to topple the government with a three-hour demonstration?" he said.

Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition, said he planned to maintain the momentum and energy of the election campaign through protests. "They will look bad when they come with their guns and water cannons to crack down on us," Mr. Sam Rainsy said in an interview. "We will offer them flowers."

Hopes of a negotiated settlement are fading. In the weeks after the election, Mr. Sam Rainsy said that he communicated with a number of leading members of the governing party but that the discussions "led nowhere."

The July election was a political milestone for the country because the governing party, the Cambodian People's Party, lost its near total monopoly on power, taking 55 percent of the seats in Parliament, down from 73 percent in the previous election, according to unofficial results. …

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