PHNOM PENH — Thousands of Cambodian opposition supporters and activists marched in Phnom Penh Tuesday to mark Human Rights Day and call for changes in the country’s rights environment.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led a crowd of some 6,000 supporters through the capital, despite warnings from authorities not to take to the streets.
Supporters, including CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha, used the march to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“We, the Cambodian people, need to change the current leader,” he said. The “majority” had made the decision for change, but the votes were “stolen” in the July election, he said. “If they stole the [Rescue Party] votes, this means they’ve stolen the money of government civil servants and our military.”
The opposition is calling for an independent investigation into allegations of election fraud.
Development projects that have forced the evictions of many rural and urban poor were also on the minds of some protesters, including 70-year-old Sek May.
“I demand the government renounce its insults to the people and kick out land concession companies,” he said. “They must stop it. If not, I’ll vow to change [leaders], because I need to keep something for the next generation. I won’t live long and for a 99-year concession, oh my Lord, only my great-grandchildren can get it back.”
Despite police warnings, security forces allowed the march to go ahead, preventing the kind of violent clashes that have marked many past demonstrations in Cambodia.
Meanwhile, the government officially marked the day with its own ceremonies in Phnom Penh, both at Olympic Stadium in the center of the capital, and at City Hall.
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong addressed a crowd of around 2,000 people at the stadium, saying the government has worked to improve human rights in the country.
“The government is intently concentrating on enforcing a full, multi-party democracy and respecting human rights,” he said. “Meanwhile, I encourage all of you here to share your issues and opinions to address the remaining issues for our people.”
The ceremony, attended by nearly 50 local and international organizations, was applauded by some civil society advocates who sometimes find themselves at odds with Cambodian authorities.
Moeun Tola, a labor program officer for the Community Legal Education Center, congratulated the government for celebrating Human Rights Day.
“In the past, it has considered this event useless, but now it is starting to understand its importance; however, as I have said, this celebration alone is not an indicator of human rights protections.”
The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed December 10 as Human Rights Day in 1950. Tuesday also marks 20 years since the signing of the Vienna Declaration, the U.N. pact that committed states to the promotion and protection of human rights for everyone.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.