The annual Water Festival, which brings millions of people into Phnom Penh every year, will proceed as normal “because we have peace,” city authorities said this week.
However, as exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy vows to attempt a return to the country on the day before the festival’s start, some are concerned that political turmoil could spill over into the national celebration.
More than 30 members of the outlawed opposition CNRP have been arrested since Rainsy on August 16 announced his return, most for the charge of plotting an attack.
City Hall spokesman Meth Measpheakdey said the city’s security forces were looking into necessary security arrangements, though he denied that he expected anything but peaceful celebrations.
“The Phnom Penh Unified Command Committee is already thinking [about it] now. We are planning carefully both security guards and enough flexible solutions to protect in and around Phnom Penh,” Measpheakdey said.
“We don’t have exactly the number of people who will join, but we hope people will come to join a lot during that time because we have peace and quality of life.”
When asked specifically if he thought the political situation could cause complications for the festivities, Measpheakdey said he doubted there would be any effect.
“As I understand it, it seems it won’t have any impact in a negative way for the Water Festival. Our citizens will cheer up together and join happily, from Phnom Penh and other provinces,” he said.
Water Festival crowds present safety and logistical challenges for the city every year, with a stampede in 2010 notably killing more than 300 people on the bridge to Koh Pich island. The event was canceled for the next three years, though the official reasons given were flooding and the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Measpheakdey added that planning was also underway for redirecting traffic out of the central riverside area and for providing parking spaces for visitors.
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said security operations for the festival were currently in the “planning” phase, but would not elaborate.
Bou Chum Serey, vice chairman of the National Committee for National and International Festivals, said organizers expected at least 305 boats to participate in the annual races this year, up from 285 boats last year.
“The Water Festival will still celebrate as normal … although there are many factors,” Chum Serey said. He would not specify what those factors were.
However, on Phnom Penh’s riverside, several people said they were anxious about the upcoming festival.
Sok Neng, 34, was selling cold drinks on the promenade between the Royal Palace and Wat Ounalom with one of her four children, a 7-year-old daughter, by her side.
She said she was concerned there could be trouble on the riverside during the festival, and was prepared to get away from the crowds if necessary.
“I am afraid because of Sam Rainsy’s return,” Neng said. “If there is any danger I will take my kid and run.”
Some others said they were also worried about political tensions spilling over into the festivities, but declined to say so on the record.
Several others, meanwhile, said personal concerns about their livelihoods and safety trumped whatever was happening in the political sphere.
“The celebrations will be quiet, I think,” said Ah Mey, who also sold drinks and snacks by the Tonle Sap river. Business on the riverside was already slow with fewer visitors, she said, and a muted Water Festival would add to her financial troubles.
Heang Sopheak, a 23-year-old bank officer, said she planned to avoid the festival altogether because she didn’t want to take the risk of being part of the crowds.
“I have no plans to go,” Sopheak said. “I am worried about my safety when walking.”
Ros Ra, 55, a motodop driver, said he would return to his hometown over the Water Festival weekend because the roads around the riverside would be closed to traffic and it would be difficult to pick up customers.
“It will affect my job. It has been difficult already. So I am worried about that,” Ra said. “l think this [year’s] celebration will have only a few people join.”
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace, said it would be a shame if political tensions dampened the annual national celebration.
“The Water Festival is a show of solidarity and development for the country,” Kim Eng said. “It makes people happy together as citizens of the country. Moreover, it is part of the identity of the nation. The political situation should not have any relation to the national celebration.”
Nevertheless, Kim Eng said he hoped that security would be robust and that everything possible would be done to control the traffic.
This year’s festival is set to take place from November 10 to 12.
Ban Chantha is part of the Newsroom Cambodia training program at CCIM.