As revelers flocked to Phnom Penh for the first day of Cambodia's annual Water Festival on Thursday to enjoy boat races, concerts, and street food, the government deployed more than 12,000 security forces to patrol the streets, including a substantial number of armed police and soldiers.
The Water Festival, which runs from November 2 to 4 this year, typically draws several million visitors to the capital city, which sits at the confluence of two major rivers, the Mekong and Tonle Sap, whose power and cultural importance is celebrated at the annual event marking the end of Cambodia’s monsoon season.
In an effort to maintain security and cut down on traffic jams, the National Police’s security subcommittee said in a statement that 12,285 security personnel had been deployed to patrol the streets, including police, military police and members of the prime minister’s personal bodyguard unit, a large paramilitary force.
The statement said the deployed security personnel would focus on dealing with pickpockets, traffic jams, and overcrowded entertainment venues. During the festival today, many of these forces could be seen patrolling the crowd equipped with AK-47s and handguns.
This year’s Water Festival follows two months of political turmoil, as the country’s main opposition party and its leader, Kem Sokha, have been accused of involvement in treason, with the party under threat of imminent dissolution and Sokha imprisoned in Tbong Khmum province.
Bou Chom Serey, deputy chief of the committee organizing the Water Festival, told VOA Khmer on Thursday afternoon that this year’s event featured 270 boats competing in rowing races, up from 257 last year, with nearly 17,828 boat racers. Organizers also expected this year’s Water Festival to draw more visitors than last year’s.
He added that the National and International Ceremonies Organizing Committee was concerned about the effects of a tropical storm scheduled to hit Cambodia on Saturday, and had instructed boat racers and visitors to be cautious, particularly on the last day of the Water Festival.
The storm, which has been named Typhoon Elephant, is heading toward Cambodia from the Philippines and is expected to cause heavy rains and winds.
"We have prepared by asking them to pay more attention and to be careful during the storm with rain,” Chom Serey said. “We instructed them yesterday. We have informed them that our country will be rainy and windy and asked them to prepare tents and raincoats. But the government does not buy them for the boat racers and they have to get them by themselves.”
Chhum Sovanny, one of the boat racers, said he was concerned about his safety in the face of the coming storm.
“The head of the boat racing informed boat racers to be careful because there could be strong winds and a strong flow of the river, and our boat has [been equipped with a] water pump machine,” he said.
However, Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology spokesman Chan Youtha said that the storm was not expected to significantly disrupt the races, as it will roll in on the tail end of the festival.