Election protests end peacefully in Cambodia | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 17.09.2013
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Election protests end peacefully in Cambodia

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has wrapped up three days of election-related protests in Phnom Penh. The opposition party demands an investigation into alleged electoral fraud.

The three days of election-related protests in Phnom Penh came to an end on Tuesday, September 17. Aside from a monk who tried to set himself on fire, the final day of the rally ended peacefully.

The event at Freedom Park, which began on Sunday, drew tens of thousands of CNRP supporters demanding an independent investigation into alleged widespread electoral fraud, which the opposition has claimed cost it the July 28 ballot.

Away from Freedom Park, the first day of the rally was marred by a nighttime clash on a busy bridge in the capital during which one man was shot dead and at least 24 people were hospitalized.

That prompted a rare intervention from King Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia's constitutional monarch, who on Monday released a letter calling on the protesters and the security forces to refrain from violence.

15 September 2013: Riot police watch after protesters demolished part of a barricade in central Phnom Penh on Sunday evening. The protesters at this site - near the Royal Palace - dispersed not long afterwards when Sam Rainsy arrived on the scene and told them to stop fighting the police. Later that night a man was killed at a clash in another part of the city. (Photo: DW/ Robert Carmichael)

Rights activists condemn the use of live ammunition on an unarmed crowd

Later Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy emerged from nearly five hours of talks at the National Assembly pledging to prevent further violence and agreeing to establish a committee to examine electoral laws and bodies, including the National Election Committee (NEC).

Both sides described the talks as productive, and said they would continue negotiations to try and resolve the tense political atmosphere. However three additional hours of talks on Tuesday ended without further progress, and with no date set for another meeting.

Vague for now

Reform of the NEC, which oversees elections in Cambodia, and which is widely seen as beholden to Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), has been a key demand of the opposition.

Earlier this month the NEC officially awarded the election to the CPP, which it said had won 68 seats to the opposition's 55 seats. The opposition has claimed it won 63 seats - giving it outright control of the 123-seat parliament - but has yet to provide proof of that claim.

Among the NEC's well-publicized failings was a voters' list that omitted the names of one million genuine voters, and which was at the same time packed with one million ghost voters. Together, that amounted to around 20 percent of the electorate.

While there is little doubt of the need for reforms, Monday's agreement was short on specifics. Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann, who was part of the CNRP's team, said the two sides had agreed "to form a committee [to examine] electoral reform."

"We need to reform the NEC, we need to [amend] some laws related to the election, and also we have to have [a] new voter list, and so on," he said of the committee's expected mandate.

Analysts have welcomed the start of talks between the two sides and the pledge to prevent further violence. However some have cautioned that there has been no movement on the CNRP's main demand: an independent investigation into the election itself.

16 September 2013: Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (centre, with glasses) shakes the hand of opposition leader Sam Rainsy during their meeting at parliament. (Photo: DW/ Robert Carmichael)

Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy agreed to establish a committee to examine electoral laws

The most recent comments by the ruling party - from CPP spokesman Prak Sokhon on Monday - show the divide between the two parties remains as wide as ever; he told reporters that it would be "unlawful" to establish such a committee.

Political analyst Chea Vannath felt the opposition would be better off looking to the future rather than getting stuck on what appears to be an unwinnable battle to have an independent investigation.

"For me as a voter, we want things to keep moving forward - even if only slowly - but not to get stuck because then there are a lot of negative things that could happen," she said, adding that parents in the capital had stopped sending their children to school for fear of violence.

"The two parties need seriously to take into consideration the interests of the country and put aside their egos to be more flexible," she said. "The CNRP has done a lot already to satisfy their supporters - the party [has shown that it] respects the will of their voters and has had a serious dialogue with the CPP."

'Excessive force'

Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called on the government to hold a credible investigation into Sunday night's violence. The clash broke out at a bridge in the southern sector of Phnom Penh. One man was shot and killed and at least two-dozen people were injured.

Local media reported that the man killed - Mao Sok Chan, a 29-year-old father of four - lived nearby and was trying to reach a friend's newsstand to protect it when he was shot dead. At least eight other people were injured by live ammunition.

The military police have denied using bullets. However, Human Rights Watch said its staff had seen military police "loading and arming assault rifles and automatic pistols with live ammunition," and witnesses told HRW that the military police then shot into the crowd.

"Shooting live fire in the dark at unarmed people posing no imminent threat to life is the definition of excessive force," said HRW's Asia director Brad Adams. "An independent investigation is urgently needed to identify and fairly prosecute all those responsible for violations committed by the security forces."

Amnesty International described the use of force as "excessive" and said it violated Cambodia's national and international legal obligations to respect human rights.

At Monday's press conference the CPP's Prak Sokhon told reporters the authorities would investigate the killing. However, with two Ministry of Interior press statements issued that day blaming the opposition for the violence, any such probe looks to be of doubtful value.

Analyst Chea Vannath said the clash highlighted the need for proper training for the police so that they "are able to peacefully handle the crowds and not over-use force."

An earlier clash on Sunday evening near the Royal Palace saw police fire teargas and use water cannon after protesters hurled bricks and threw parts of a barricade into the river. That situation, in which at least one policeman and one protester were injured, was defused after Sam Rainsy arrived on the scene and ordered people to stop fighting the authorities and return to Freedom Park.

What next?

Sam Rainsy returns to Cambodia (Photo: DW/Robert Carmichael, Phnom Penh 16 August 2013)

Sam Rainsy went on self-imposed exile in 2009 and returned to Cambodia ahead of the election this year

With parliament scheduled to re-open on September 23, and with the opposition still undecided on a boycott - it has said it will not turn up unless the CPP agrees to the independent investigation into electoral irregularities - what happens over the coming days will be key.

Hun Sen has warned that he will confiscate the opposition's 55 seats should its prospective MPs not arrive for parliament's opening, a threat that the CNRP has laughed off.

Some observers believe a boycott could delay the formation of the new government on the grounds that there would not be enough MPs present to form a quorum. The CPP said its interpretation of the law showed it could form a new government with a simple majority.

Meantime, the CNRP has warned it could yet hold further demonstrations, including some outside Phnom Penh, should it decide they were warranted.

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