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Thousands March Through Capital for Human Rights Day

Cambodian dancers perform during a celebration of International Human Rights Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. Thousands of activists, monks and villagers, as well as opposition party supporters led by Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, joined rallies Tuesday calling of an end to injustice in the capital. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Thousands of Cambodian opposition supporters and activists marched in Phnom Penh Tuesday to mark International Human Rights Day and call for changes in the country’s sliding rights environment.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, led a crowd of some 6,000 supporters, including Buddhist monks, through the capital, despite warnings from authorities not to take to the streets.

“We, the majority of Cambodians, don’t have the right to live in peace, either physically or mentally,” Sam Rainsy told the crowd. “There is nothing. That’s because of this corrupt and dictatorial authority.”

Supporters called for Prime Minister Hun Sen to “Step Down!”

“We, the Cambodian people, need to change the current leader,” Rescue Party Kem Sokha told supporters. 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 human rights reforms, as well as a credible investigation into allegations of election fraud and political bias of the National Election Committee, or NEC.

“If they want to reform the NEC, and the National Assembly, and to make media independent, we, [the Rescue Party], agree to take part,” Kem Sokha said. “But there must be an immediate election.”

The government is facing mounting criticism from within Cambodia, for continued corruption, courts widely viewed as corrupt and development projects that have forced the evictions of many rural and urban poor.

“I demand the government renounce its insults to the people and kick out land concession companies,” said Sek Mey, a 70-year-old demonstrator. “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-grand children 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 demonstrations in Cambodia in the past.

However, riot police were deployed in key areas, including outside the home of Hun Sen.

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.”

Chan Chareoun, 51, who attended the government ceremony, said he had come to better understand his “fundamental rights.” “And to respect human rights, regardless of race or political affiliation,” he said.

The ceremony was attended by nearly 50 local and international organizations and was applauded by some within civil society who sometimes find themselves at odds with authorities.

“We congratulate the government’s move to celebrate International Human Rights Day,” said Moeun Tola, a labor program officer for the Community Legal Education Center. “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.”

Losses the polls and more pressure from the international community were both moving government officials toward a better recognition of human rights, he said.

Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the government was now undergoing “gradual reform.”

“They’ve already started it,” he’s said. “I can’t speak for any individual, but it’s necessary, and they must achieve it. If not, people will make a new assessment through the commune elections in 2017.”