Why Rallies Are Not Really Rallies in Manila and Phnom Penh

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Why Rallies Are Not Really Rallies in Manila and Phnom Penh

There are “meetings” and “picnics” in Cambodia and the Philippines, but no “protests”.

Since last month, Cambodians and Filipinos have been staging massive outdoor rallies in their respective capitals but curiously they are denying that these are protests. 

After accusing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of manipulating the July 28 election results, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) organized an assembly on August 6, presumably to protest the election fraud. But party leaders clarified that the aim of the gathering at the Phnom Penh Freedom Park was simply to thank supporters and voters. Another outdoor “meeting” was called on August 26 to inform the people about their demand for the establishment of an independent committee to probe the recent elections. 

Thousands of Cambodians attended these assemblies which somehow reflected the rising public dissatisfaction against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen who has been in power for the past three decades. 

To sustain the momentum of its campaign, the CNRP announced that its first official election protest will be held on September 7. But days before the scheduled rally, party leader Sam Rainsy surprised many supporters when he declared that the assembly will be a day of prayer and meditation for justice.

“What we are calling a non-violent and peaceful demonstration would have the spirit of a ceremony of contemplation and prayer throughout the country,” Rainsy said in a press conference. “We will preach and be gentle,” he added. He advised participants to bring candles, incense and lotus flowers. 

To prove that it is seriously advocating nonviolence, the CNRP held a training session before the rally to teach participants how to react non-violently to police provocations and avoid the use of abusive and racist language.

“Because we are Khmer we have to have gentle expressions…we have to keep smiling,” explained CNRP vice president Kem Sokha.  

The CNRP decision to hold a mass prayer instead of a traditional rally was probably intended to encourage more people to join the activities of the opposition. The party must be preparing for a long political battle for which it needs to develop a broad constituency that could challenge the strong machinery of the ruling CPP. 

Opposition politician Mu Sochua argued why violent engagement won’t be effective today: “As for the change we want of the election results, it would take a violent confrontation and I personally think that we are not ready, nor willing to take that route. I believe that taking one step at a time to strengthen peoples’ self-confidence for more sustainable change…will help us take over power at 2018 elections.”

Aside from threatening to boycott the Parliament sessions, the CNRP has called for more rallies next week. But it is not yet certain whether the planned actions are really protest rallies or something else. 

Meanwhile, in the Philippines thousands converged at Luneta Park in Manila on August 26 to denounce the rampant corruption in the government after a whistleblower revealed how politicians are systematically misappropriating funds. It was a gathering organized mainly by netizens and instead of calling it a rally, they described it as a “massive pocket picnic get together.”

The official Facebook page for the event even contained explicit reminders about the non-partisan character of the activity: “No group banners. No political colors. No speeches. Just all of us ordinary, tax-paying people showing government they answer to us. We need this outrage, anger to reach critical mass.” 

During the scheduled assembly, the center of the park was exclusively designated for individuals not affiliated with any political groups. And instead of political speeches, participants listened to patriotic songs and occasional logistical announcements. 

The next major anti-corruption event is scheduled for September 11 and this time it will be held at the historic Edsa Shrine, the site of People Power uprisings which led to the ouster of two presidents in 1986 and 2001. But again, the event is supposedly not a political rally but a prayer vigil against corruption. The powerful Catholic Church hierarchy is endorsing the activity. 

The Facebook page for the event contains states: “No banners, placards, effigies or bullhorns. This is not a political rally. This is a prayer vigil.” Participants are also barred from bringing costumes and megaphones. But they are encouraged to bring trash bags to clean up the shrine after the vigil.

On September 13, protesters will return to Luneta Park for an assembly that will apparently take the form of a rock concert. There is also a gathering planned for September 21.

The series of “protests” reflects the continuing and rising outrage felt by many Filipinos about the plunder of people’s money by corrupt politicians. Despite the pledge of President Benigno Aquino III to abolish the legislative pork, angry citizens and netizens continue to call for the scrapping of all discretionary funds, including the presidential pork.

Perhaps the events were advertised as peaceful, fun and safe in order to attract a bigger crowd. The banning of political speeches and banners proves that the assemblies were not organized by the country’s opposition forces. It is important to note that opposition politicians are also implicated in the corruption scandal. 

So far, the “non-rallies” in Phnom Penh and Manila have been effective in drawing more people and generating public interest. But participants must also acknowledge that despite their rejection of partisan political ideologies, their decision to join the citizen assemblies is itself a political act. And besides, how can we refrain from speaking and acting in clear political terms when we are fighting political evils like election fraud and corruption?