PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's main opposition party denounced a large demonstration held Sunday against one of their leaders in the capital, a rally they say was staged by supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen to intimidate rivals ahead of July elections.
More than 10,000 protesters gathered in Phnom Penh to lash out against opposition chief Kem Sokha for allegedly saying that exhibits at a Khmer Rouge-era genocide museum in Phnom Penh were faked. Sokha has denied the allegations, and his party says the campaign against him is politically motivated.
On Friday, the Southeast Asian nation's legislature approved a bill making it a crime to deny atrocities were committed by the country's genocidal 1970s Khmer Rouge regime. Critics worry the law will be used as a weapon against Hun Sen's political opponents.
The bill was passed unanimously in the absence of opposition lawmakers, who were expelled from the legislature this week, ostensibly on grounds they had left their old parties to join a new, merged party to contest the July 28 vote.
The ruling party of Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, holds 90 seats in the assembly and is expected to win an overwhelming share of the 123 seats at stake. Sokha is deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose leader Sam Rainsy lives in self-exile to avoid jail on what are widely seen as politically motivated charges.
Pro-government media had recently publicized comments allegedly made by Sokha that exhibits at Phnom Penh's famous Tuol Sleng genocide museum, a prison turned torture center, were faked. Sokha, however, has said parts of audio clip of the comments were altered by detractors.
Yim Sovann, a spokesnan for Sokha's party, said the rally Sunday was "orchestrated" by ruling party supporters.
The protest was led by Chum Mey, a survivor from Tuol Sleng prison who is now president of the Victims Association of Democratic Kampuchea. But the victims group issued a statement Saturday saying the group had nothing to do with the protest and would hold a vote to replace him. The group said Mey's participation in the rally ran counter to the association's political neutrality.
Youk Chhang, who heads an independent office that documents Khmer Rouge atrocities and said the legislation passed this week risks politicizing the process of reconciliation in the country, also expressed concern.
"The protest this morning teaches us that genocide is a political act and as long as human beings are around on this planet, genocide can be and will be repeated" unless people are educated enough to stop it.
The Khmer Rouge communist regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, claimed it was building a pure socialist society by evicting people from cities to work in labors camps in the countryside. Its radical policies led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution.
Many former members of the Khmer Rouge, including Hun Sen himself, hold important positions in Cambodia's current government. Human Rights Watch has also blamed Hun Sen for obstructing the work of a U.N.-backed international tribunal set up to bring justice for crimes against humanity committed during the Khmer Rouge era.