PHNOM PENH - Cambodia’s opposition began three days of mass demonstrations in the capital on Wednesday to call for the government to allow an independent probe into alleged fraud in the country’s July elections.
Thousands gathered early Wednesday in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where they were met by thousands of riot police.
The Cambodian National Rescue Party, which organized the protests, plans to march on Wednesday to a United Nations office in the capital to deliver a petition calling for international intervention to end the standoff over the July vote.
Party officials said they had 2 million names on the petition.
Cambodian authorities granted last-minute approval for the Rescue Party to deliver the petition, but stipulated that only 1,000 people be allowed to join the march.
Some opposition officials have told local media the march will exceed that figure.
The party expects as many as 50,000 people to attend the three-day protest, which coincides with the anniversary of the 1991 signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, which ended decades of conflict in the country.
Demonstrators shouted, “Change! Change!” as they marched Wednesday.
“I want justice,” Sok Vichea, a resident of Phnom Penh who joined in the march, told VOA Khmer. “The main point is the need for change, because I cannot accept the current government.”
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party officials say the vote was free and fair, arguing the results were upheld by the National Election Commission and Constitutional Council—two bodies seen as biased toward the ruling party by the opposition.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday urged foreign governments to put more pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow for an election probe.
The New York-based group said many international observers have concluded the election process was “severely marred by significant structural flaws and irregularities,” including voter fraud, media bias, and partisanship by state security forces.
The statement also slammed the prime ministers of France, Australia and Japan for sending congratulatory letters following the election to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams, said “premature congratulations from elected leaders undermine the hopes of millions of Cambodians who rely on the international community to back their demands for free and fair elections.”
Ny Chakriya, lead investigator for the rights group Adhoc, who was present at the demonstration, said he supported peaceful assembly and petitioning, “to show the will of the people.”
Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy told reporters that he was preparing election documentation to submit to the UN aimed to find “justice” for voters in July’s election.
Protesters said Wednesday they planned to march on the embassies of the United States, France and the UK on Thursday.
Meanwhile, human rights workers and democracy advocates said Wednesday that the demonstration, held on the anniversary of the Paris Accords, was a reminder that the spirit of the agreement could be useful in bringing the country’s current political deadlock to an end.
Under the accords, “four factions of [Cambodians] agreed to bring peace to the country,” said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. That could be done today, he said.