PAILIN PROVINCE – About 200 people gathered in front of the provincial hall in this former Khmer Rouge stronghold Monday morning in stubborn protest of a trip by opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha that was abandoned a day earlier.
Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha called off their tour of former Khmer Rouge zones on Sunday after officials and plain-clothed men in Anlong Veng district threatened to block them and Interior Ministry officials said they could not guarantee their safety.
The pair returned to Phnom Penh and held a press conference Monday to condemn the ruling CPP for using the threat of ungovernable former Khmer Rouge guerrillas to prevent their political activities.
In the center of Pailin, which is located about six hours southwest of Anlong Veng and which fell in 1996, those who turned up said they were there to counter the canceled opposition rally.
Carrying signs that read: “We absolutely don’t need the presence of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha in the territory of Pailin,” and loafing in the well-kept central gardens in front of the hall, some said simply that Mr. Rainsy “disgusts” them while others said they once supported him.
“It would be fine if he came to say something normal,” said Chhin Sothea, 31, a protest organizer who said he supported Prime Minister Hun Sen. “But the people will react if he insults their helpers by calling them ‘the despicable blind man’ or ‘the person who sells land to Vietnam.’”
Another protester, Chea Pov, 39, said Mr. Rainsy had long ago lost her trust.
“I’ve been very disappointed with him for a long time because he never does anything to meet his promises,” she said.
Ms. Pov claimed that Mr. Rainsy had not delivered on a promise to give two buffalos and a tractor to her village in return for their votes at the 1998 election.
“That’s why he lost two mandates here—because he lies,” she said.
Mr. Rainsy’s eponymous party won the only lawmaker seat in the province of Pailin in the July 1998 national election, shortly after former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary had led the area’s defection.
A former Khmer Rouge foot soldier who had led Mr. Rainsy’s campaign in the province, however, was denied the seat, which was given instead to Cambodian-American Sun Kim Hun, who later defected to Funcinpec.
The ruling CPP has won each national election here since. In last year’s election, the party took 64.8 percent of votes in Pailin, electing as lawmaker the wife of the now departed provincial governor Y Chhien.
An organizer at Monday’s rally, who first identified himself as a provincial official but later said he was only a citizen, drew the three-hour rally to a close at about 10:30 a.m. after being informed by a reporter that Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha had just appeared publicly in Phnom Penh.
After a series of phone calls, the man, who declined to give his name, signaled the crowd to disperse on their motorbikes and trailers.
By telephone, Mr. Rainsy denied the claims of undelivered promises made by Ms. Pov.
“We have never made such promises,” Mr. Rainsy said. “It was not on the basis of such a promise that we won our seat in 1998. It was on the message of peace. I have nothing to say more than that.”
Mr. Rainsy also challenged the government to work to ensure it can control elements of reintegrated Khmer Rouge soldiers to allow his opposition party to meet its supporters in the northwest in the future.
Pailin provincial governor Koeut Sothea, who late last month replaced the long-serving Mr. Chhien, the former chief bodyguard for Pol Pot, said Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha would have been safe Monday.
“In principle, we have to contribute to protecting their security because we seriously care about the situation…[and] the use of impolite words would have drawn a reaction from the people,” he said.