A crowd of around 30 activists gathered at the base of Phnom Penh’s namesake Wat Phnom hill Wednesday before embarking down National Road 5 on a more than 200 kilometer journey by foot to Pursat province to promote social justice and morality.
The march, organized by the union Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), was limited to only 50 people under the orders of the Ministry of Interior. Participants said they were determined to make it all the way to the statue of legendary military figure and guardian spirit Khleang Moeung in Pursat.
CITA’s president Uk Chhayavy said she had grown concerned over political leaders’ use of abusive words. Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened violence and legal action against criticism of the ruling CPP and has targeted opposition political leaders in numerous speeches.
“We all do this because we see that our society in recent times is experiencing a lot of immorality, even the leaders use abusive words,” Chhayavy said.
CITA was joined by other prominent activist groups like the Friday Women and Khmer Thavarak. Former CITA president Rong Chhun, who announced Sunday he was joining the opposition Candlelight party, is also participating.
The group of marchers began at Wat Phnom to signal their desire for peace and morality in society while trekking the long distance to show self-sacrifice would be needed to achieve these goals, according to the activists.
“Please be kind to your compatriots, avoid using obscene words, violence, beating, throwing stones, please end it,” Chhun said. “The purpose of today is to spread compassion so that politicians of all political persuasions, before expressing their point of views, must think about morality as well as propaganda.”
Chhun said social morality meant Cambodia’s elites should not abuse the poor or engage in land grabs and that the government should release arbitrarily detained political prisoners.
“Wealthy or powerful people who abuse weak people need to rethink and end this kind of action in Cambodian society,” he said.
Yi Soksan, a senior investigator for human rights NGO Adhoc, said that tensions have increased in the run-up to elections and the tightening of the restrictions across society in recent years.
“I think that [CITA] is preparing to reduce the political heat and calm the violence and move forward towards a free and fair election without violence,” Soksan said.
He hoped the march would inspire people to participate and vote in the upcoming elections.
Toch Sreynich, 28, traveled from Prey Veng province to join the start of the CITA march. She said she wants to see the government release political activists who were imprisoned and advocate for a more open environment in which youth can freely express their political views without fear of legal consequences and intimidation.
“I joined with CITA because I want to find justice for our society, the society that arrested political activists who did nothing wrong,” she said. “I don’t beg for more besides having full rights of expression and good morality in our society.”
Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said that the government allowed the march but would keep the group under surveillance and require them to remain in close contact with local authorities.
“If they don’t keep in close contact, the local authorities might not be able to make way for them,” Sopheak said. “The Interior Ministry has told them this already, but if they don’t follow it, the local authorities might make an arrest.”
Last week, the Interior Ministry threatened legal action against CITA if the organization failed to disclose its 2022 financial records in accordance with the Law on Association and Non-Governmental Organizations. The law, passed in 2015, has been criticized for suppressing the activities of NGOs.
CITA’s president said the union would comply with the Ministry’s request once she completed the march.
The marchers appeared inspired during the first stretch of their journey.
Boeung Kak Lake land activist Nget Khun, 82, said she was attempting to make the pilgrimage no matter how long it took, believing it would set an example for the younger generations about what was needed to truly achieve peace and freedom.
There is no strength from anywhere, but because of my strength, I want peace, not peace like today,” she said. “There is still discrimination against the people and partisanship!
By 6 p.m., the group had made it more than 20 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh but as night fell they were refused shelter at a pagoda, which demanded permission from local authorities, according to Chhayavi. The marchers instead found a place to rest at the home of a sympathetic Candlelight party supporter.
Chhayavy said she remains excited for the long trek to come, heartened by the many supportive people who she will meet.
“This is a motivating force that makes us work harder for freedom as well as for our security on this journey.”