Thousands of Cambodians, many holding lotus flowers symbolising peace, joined a mass protest in the capital Phnom Penh yesterday in a last-ditch bid to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen's disputed election win.
About 20,000 demonstrators, some carrying placards and ribbons with "my vote, my life" written in Khmer, gathered in Democracy Park to demand a probe into allegations that voter fraud denied the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) victory in July's election.
The protest, which was one of the largest opposition demonstrations in recent years, comes as final results due today are expected to end the CNRP's legal options to overturn the result.
The CNRP has alleged widespread rigging in the election in which Hun Sen's long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) claimed victory.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy again rejected the poll result yesterday, vowing further peaceful demonstrations unless an independent probe into alleged voter fraud was called.
Opening his address with a prayer, Rainsy told the rally it was a "historic day" and called for "justice for the voters".
"Those who steal our votes won't live happily," he said, to rapturous applause.
Rainsy, a French-educated former banker, was excluded from standing in the polls despite a recent pardon for criminal convictions that he maintains were politically motivated.
According to preliminary official results from the National Election Committee (NEC), the CPP won 3.2 million votes to the CNRP's 2.9 million. The NEC is expected to rule that the CPP won the election when it declares the final results today.
The country's Constitutional Council said on Friday that it had reviewed the CNRP's complaints about the poll and had broadly rejected them.
"In general, we uphold the decisions of the NEC," council spokesman Uth Chhorn said.
His comments failed to deflate protesters who converged in the capital for several hours yesterday, before dispersing around lunchtime.
"I came to demand justice. Our votes have been stolen... the victory of the people has been stolen," said Uy Sarouen, 54, in a frequently heard complaint.
Experts say the opposition's legal options are running out.
"The chances of the opposition succeeding in its demands are proportional to the number of supporters joining the demonstration," Cambodian independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said before the rally.
But Hun Sen's ruling CPP said it would not be swayed by the size of the protest turnout. "They cannot put pressure on us," said senior party member Cheam Yeap. "The winning party won't become hostage to the losing side."
Hun Sen, 61, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and oversaw Cambodia's rise from the ashes of war, has vowed to rule until he is 74. His government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.
Thousands of members of the security forces were mobilised for yesterday's gathering, but kept a low profile and the protest passed without violence.