Visitor numbers have nearly halved for the first day of the Water Festival celebrations in Phnom Penh, owing to a heavy presence of security personnel. Official statistics showed that around 550,000 people attended the festivities on Sunday, compared to the 900,000 who attended the first day of the annual festival in 2018.
The Water Festival, unlike the Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben holidays where Cambodians travel to their hometowns in the provinces, sees an influx of tourists from across the country to revel in the boat races and cultural events across Phnom Penh. However, this year there is an air of political tension affecting attendance at the festivities.
Heavily armed security personnel can be seen in areas around the Royal Palace and along the riverside, with security forces patrolling the streets and stationing armoured vehicles at various points.
The security measures, which includes around 20,000 armed security personnel in Phnom Penh, is in response to an attempt by some exiled opposition leader, including Mu Sochua and Sam Rainsy, to return to the country on November 9. A group of CNRP leaders are currently camped in Malaysia.
National Police figures show that only half number of the people attended the festival on Sunday, which centres around boat races along Phnom Penh’s riverside. The festival is attended by the King and senior government officials on the first day.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment. Political commentator Meas Nee said the excessive deployment of security personnel was affecting attendance for the Water Festival, and economic proceeds as well.
"The first thing is to spend too much money on a [security] response that is not appropriate,” Meas Nee said. “If they are just waiting for Sam Rainsy, there is no need to deploy a large amount of force."
The festival is usually financially beneficial for local businesses and vendors, many of whom said the low attendance figures were hurting business. They also pointed to the high security presence for deterring potential visitors.
Mean Ry, a clothes vendor at one of the riverside parks, said he had to pay $25 for his two-square meter stall and was worried fewer tourists would mean lower sales. He said he had heard from other vendors, who were staying away from Phnom Penh, that they were worried about unrest in the city.
“Other businessmen like me are not coming to Phnom Penh,” he said. “They are scared and so they rather sell their goods in the provinces, like Pursat or Siem Reap.”
Another passing visitor said the security measures were excessive and creating panic and fear, causing low attendance at the festival.
Kim Huon, a resident of Kandal province, is relaxing with his family in one of the parks. He said it was strange to see people leaving the city before the festival. This normally happened only during Pchum Ben, he added.
“When I came to the city on the November 8 and November 9, I saw crowds of people leaving the city like during the Pchum Ben period,” he said.
“Every year, around this time at 9pm or 10pm, it is so crowded with visitors and vendors but this year it is not crowded.”