Cambodia's Rescue Party Stages Bittersweet Rally'

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party's mass rally yesterday should have been a celebration of the national election as victors but for the blatant chicanery of the long ruling former communist party. Instead the party faces five years in a distressed political wilderness with no guarantee they could, in the nature of things, ever win an election.

The Khmer Rouge still hangs like a chilly shroud over Cambodia to this day, forever brooding although it is 34 years since the last of the mass murderers were driven from Phnom Penh by the invading Vietnamese army, along with certain guerilla fighters who had defected to them along the border.

These included the present Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has now been in power 28 years, and who claimed to have been elected again on July 28. This is a claim the middle of the road Rescue Party (CNRP) says is invalid, that it was the CNRP that had won, but that there had been electoral fraud which deprived them of winning.

The younger, voting age generation, from 18 to 30 years old, are 3.5 million out of 9.5 million registered voters. They say they do not know about nor care about the Khmer Rouge years, and their parents and grandparents don't talk about them. Yet some of the still repressed terror the older ones felt under the Khmer Rouge is still there.

That's why so many in their middle years were anxious about attending this opposition rally by the Rescue party Monday about which the now-aging rulers of Cambodia, many of them former Khmer Rouge themselves, began issuing threats about the event, suggesting that a heavy police and military presence would be on hand to crack down as necessary unless the CNRP kept the numbers of participants to around 6,000.

One middle-aged woman, a young girl during Khmer Rouge times and now a domestic helper, had been warned in anxious calls by her sisters in Australia and on the Thai border, and her daughter in Siem Reap, home city of the Angkor temples, not to go. "I'll not leave the house, because I'm too afraid and my daughter won't let me," she said.

But in the event she did find her courage and went to Freedom Park, triumphantly saying later that the Rescue party leader, Sam Rainsy, had grasped her by the arm.

It seemed that Rescue party's winter of discontent should be well and truly underway, but the rally of about 6,000 Cambodians -- a tally showing government and opposition had cooperated to a certain extent - in the event, was full of good cheer and laughing people.

"It was as if the Rescue party had won the election," said one foreign observer, "not that they had been deprived of their victory by what seems to have been electoral fraud."

The Rescue party claimed to have won the election despite contradictory results from the government-controlled National Election Committee (NEC), a not-so-impartial watchdog group which called a victory for the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Some of the women on the platform at the rally, held in the normal rubbish-strewn, downtown Freedom Park, each took turns of helping to energize the crowd. Mde Mu Sochua, a top Rescue party leader and member of the National Assembly from Battambang, Cambodia's second city, put the crowd in a party mood by singing an ancient folk song and swaying in a much-loved old dance while dressed in the sampot, a figure-hugging, ankle-length silk dress.

Mde Sochua, a Khmer-American, is often called 'Cambodia's Aung San Suu Kyi' after the Burmese leader who helped lead her own people towards democracy. Sochua has the same kind of courage as the Burmese leader known as 'The Lady,' and possibly Burma's future president.

But these days, Cambodia -- in a switch of roles -- has further to go down the road yet than Burma to reach fair government. Its opposition remains mired in frustration instead of being the victors they thought they had become.

Then there was Theary Seng, another American-Khmer woman and a human rights lawyer, decked in a scarlet blouse, who encouraged the crowd with a dazzling smile she perhaps didn't feel. "This season of discontent will be here to stay for some time, and will likely snowball into a monsoonal downpour of discontents, until Cambodia sees a complete change of leadership," she warned recently. Cambodia, she said 'is a sea of human rights abuses.'

But there was a brighter side, too, she noted. "We are witnessing a new phenomenon, the blooming of a Cambodia Spring, until there is a complete change of leadership."

Theary Seng said that Hun Sen had given himself grandiose, lengthy titles and named education institutions after himself. But this was basically to no avail as reflected by his humiliating rejection by the people during the 2013 election, something that had indeed happened to Hun Sen, who seemed to believe he was still the toast of the masses.

The third of the three women on the platform of the rally was the daughter of Kem Sokha, feisty deputy leader of the Rescue party and a strong human rights supporter. Her job was to hand out flowers -- plastic ones sadly -- to the party leaders.

. Real fresh flowers have become -- and surely it could only happen in Cambodia -- a tricky political issue. Hun Sen has tried to have them banned because young people have been giving them to soldiers and policemen, both in the past firm supporters of the regime, but some in certain cases thinking again. The flower gambit was to show that police and army were ALL the guardians of ALL the people.

But three youngsters have already been detained for this 'crime,' though they are now been released.

However, despite regime threats, there were only a few dozen security troops -- police and military police -- most of whom seemed unarmed at yesterday's event. Certainly tanks and armored personnel carriers were far from this scene. The government's scare targets had been a bluff this time. There were, however, plenty of plain-clothed coppers in mufti, and driving motorcycles.

Yesterday, the two Rescue party leaders, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, threatened to hold demonstrations in two weeks, rather than a mere rally. A demonstration would likely lead to a crackdown unlike yesterday's tamer rally.

They alleged wide-spread manipulation of voter lists and identity fraud engineered by the CPP with the election commission, which is believed under the heavy thumb of the People's Party though it should be an independent body.

The commission has said that the Constitutional Council of Cambodia -- another CPP stooge group -- will confirm final election results no later than September 8, permitting a new government to form by the end of next month.

But the Rescue Party says it will not join the government unless its demands are met. "If they do not find justice for us, we will not join the meeting of the National Assembly," Kem Sokha said yesterday. In which case, Hun Sen said in early August, their seats would be legally given to the CPP.

Trouble still lies ahead for, as one young woman on the platform said yesterday: "We are not scared of tanks. Even if they had nuclear weapons, I would not be afraid to demonstrate."