ANLONG VENG DISTRICT, Oddar Meanchey province – Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha called off a two-day tour of former Khmer Rouge strongholds in the northwest on Sunday after local authorities and men in plain clothes said they would block any political rallies.
Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha planned to start their tour with a morning rally in Anlong Veng district, the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the resting place of Pol Pot, but canceled a journey from Siem Reap City after failing to secure guarantees of their safety.
Mr. Rainsy said by telephone from Siem Reap that talks with Interior Ministry officials had rendered guarantees only that provincial and district authorities would not prevent their entry into Anlong Veng.
“The general situation is now not good. They said there are forces not under their control and they cannot do anything,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“They can control the provincial governors and the district and commune police but not the military, the former Khmer Rouge.”
“There are a lot of rumors, so it’s better to leave,” he said.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that he could not comment on what Prum Sokha, a secretary of state at the ministry, had said to Mr. Rainsy in their conversation Sunday morning.
“I have no idea about his speech,” Mr. Sopheak said when asked what message the Interior Ministry had given to Mr. Rainsy.
But Mr. Sopheak did say that soldiers in the area “are the ex-Khmer Rouge.”
“The Khmer Rouge are very strong,” he said. “And that was their last stronghold.”
Less than 100 km along the road from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng, a group of about 200 men dressed in ordinary clothes clasped poles with the Cambodian national flag and loitered next to a makeshift roadblock, with officials at the gates refusing to identify themselves or their superiors.
One seized a reporter’s voice recorder and camera and returned them only on condition of an immediate departure from the roadblock, which appeared prepared to stop a large number of cars.
Pairs of uniformed soldiers with rifles also sporadically appeared along the roadside, but most sat only idly on their motorbikes. A group of military police officers sat at a provincial security headquarters about 500 meters around a bend from the roadblock of plain-clothed men.
“There is no order for us to stop any car,” said Soeun Hay, an officer stationed in front of the headquarters. “We won’t check any cars bearing state license plates, because their ranks are higher than mine.”
The officer added that he was unaware of any nearby roadblocks.
“You can go in and out through this road with safety,” he said.
In Anlong Veng, district police officers, including deputy police chief So Nov, declined to say whether they could guarantee the CNRP leaders’ safety had they attempted to enter Anlong Veng.
Just a day earlier, as supporters made plans to welcome the CNRP leaders, groups of visibly drunk plain-clothed men sat on pick-up trucks in front of the police office stopping those who had come to join the rallies.
The men told reporters they had been deployed there to help police protect the town from Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha.
“We prevented the CNRP coming here to cause trouble,” one said.
According to Mr. Rainsy, 10 to 15 supporters wound up leaving the province on Saturday night, worried about possible trouble.
Nhem En, the former CPP district deputy governor who defected to the opposition in March, had hoped to host Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha during their visit but ended up fleeing to Siem Reap.
Mr. En, who was the photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh under Pol Pot, saw his rental home shuttered Saturday night after trying to hang a large CNRP banner.
An official, who identified himself only as Mr. Ul, on Sunday emerged from the district administrative offices and said authorities had placed locks on Mr. En’s rented house across the road because he had attempted—against the wishes of his landlord—to install a large CNRP-branded banner on it.
By Sunday morning, officials had rolled a speaker-mounted SUV out of their district administrative office and pointed it across the street at Mr. En’s house—where his daughter tried futilely to remove the padlocks with a cleaver.
“We absolutely oppose—absolutely oppose—Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy entering the territory of Anlong Veng, a reintegrated land where there is happiness, and development is being done by the government,” shouted a man over the speaker to a sparse group of people lingering in the area.
Though Mr. Rainsy on Friday denied that the opposition’s trip to northwest was intended to rally support among former Khmer Rouge rank-and-file, the journey to the northwest would have had the pair visit all of the major towns held by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
Anlong Veng, the Khmer Rouge’s final stronghold, fell to the government in December 1998 with the defection of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, after prolonged negotiations and a series of military defections that year had left its strongman ruler, Khmer Rouge Defense Minister Ta Mok, without an effective army. Its last troops were reintegrated into the national army in February 1999.
The pair would have visited Banteay Meanchey province’s Malai district today, where Pol Pot’s only daughter was married in March, and Pailin province, where former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary had led the first major defection to the government in September 1996.
Mr. Rainsy’s opposition party won Pailin’s only seat at the July 1998 national election, but the victor later defected to Funcinpec.
Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha would have also traveled to Battambang province’s Samlot district, which defected with Ieng Sary’s forces in 1996 before joining the Funcinpec resistance to the CPP after the factional fighting of July 1997. The forces defected again in December 1998.