‘Free’ Prey Veng Gets Ultimate Test This Week

prey veng town – One can almost imagine opposition candidate Sam Rainsy and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen going at each other in this provincial town east of Phnom Penh. 

A Sam Rainsy Party banner here pokes fun at the CPP for handing out gifts like monosodium glutamate in efforts to woo voters. “Between the two, which one would you take—the nation or MSG?”

Across the road, a CPP banner sarcastically asks what other parties have done so far for the country. “How many irrigation canals? How many schools? How many roads? How many pagodas?”

This banner banter reflects the feisty political dialogue that exists here today compared with 1993, when CPP agents boasted of being able to physically stop op­position activities at will.

But although opposition parties and voters alike are increasingly expressing their views, there still is an undercurrent of tension and intimidation in this CPP stronghold.

And the biggest test of this fledgling freedom of expression comes this week. Funcinpec started a week-long rally on Mon­day, Rainsy is scheduled to visit the province today and the CPP is set for its blitz Wednesday. Many smaller parties are also actively campaigning.

Eleven National Assembly seats are at stake in what is one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces, where livelihoods of many depend on the success of the rainy-season crop.

As in many areas of the country, voters seem to be trying to decide whether to stay with an old party or go with a new one that pledges reform.

Eleven National Assembly seats are at stake in what is one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces, where the livelihood of many de­pends on the success of the rainy-season crop.

As in many areas of the country, voters seem to be trying to decide whether to stay with an old party or go with a new one that pledges reform.

“Most of the people here like the CPP,” said Yem Yong, a corn and rice farmer. “Hun Sen has made us an irrigation canal, a school and liberated us from the Khmer Rouge regime.”

The CPP won six seats in 1993. Voters here predict that the CPP again will have a strong showing, but say that Funcinpec is popular in the countryside and that Sam Rainsy is making inroads.

First Prime Minister Ung Huot also is well-known and his likeness is tacked on dozens of trees, but it’s unclear how much support his Reastr Niyum party will enjoy when voters go to the polls Sunday.

Sentiment for the CPP seems strongest in Prey Veng town.

CPP banners simply dominate in the provincial capital. At one intersection alone, there are 10.

Shortly after arriving Sunday morning, loudspeakers from the CPP’s headquarters downtown blared: “A vote for the CPP is a vote for democracy, peace, development. Bravo CPP!” The taped message, which could be heard for blocks around, was repeated at 6:30 the next morning.

“For me, I like the CPP and most of the people like the CPP,” said Srei Neang, a 22-year-old restaurant worker in Prey Veng town. The restaurant has a CPP banner in front.

“Security is very good and we can make a business easily.”

She said many people came in boats along a branch of the Mekong River to see Hun Sen when he made a helicopter stop in Prey Veng town about two weeks ago. But many others in the pro­vince said they have not seen the CPP campaign.

A confident group of party members were bowling Khmer-style on a dirt alley inside the party headquarters complex well into the night on Sunday. Sign­boards with the devada logo stood nearby.

The atmosphere here is being characterized as far improved from 1993, when intimidation reportedly was widespread, systematic and violent.

According to “Cam­bodia’s New Deal,” by William Shawcross, a provincial police re­port back then brag­ged about preventing opposition activities. Local authorities used hand-picked troublemakers to do the dirty work, Shawcross wrote.

On Monday, Im Sa­vuth, deputy commander of the provincial military police, told his version of the events five years ago and added that the current political climate is “not only better but, in general, it’s good.

“In 1993, there were a lot of shootings, grenade explo­sions …people supported political parties very strongly and when they got drunk, they fought each other.”

He said the situation is better today because the government and the National Election Com­mittee issued orders to his “neutral institution” to protect the rights of all political parties.

By Ban, chairman of the pro­vincial election commission, also claimed security is good and that all political parties are being allowed to campaign freely.

He acknowledged complaints of intimidation over the presence of local authorities at political rallies. But he said that NEC regulations require authorities to protect candidates.

By Ban said CPP banners dominate Prey Veng town “because people support the CPP. Any party can have a banner at a house that supports them.”

Chhourn Soy, first deputy chief of Funcinpec in Prey Veng, however, said he believes people still worry about getting in trouble if they support the opposition publicly.

“It’s very hard to get permission from people who live there and also from authorities,” he said of putting up banners. “CPP can get permission easily.”

The province hasn’t been free of violence.

Some rights workers suspect that two killings in Prey Veng pro­vince in mid-June were politically motivated. Suspects were held in one case, but later released. Police and the government’s human rights committee concluded both were the result of personal disputes.

Chhourn Soy claimed that some local authorities have told people if they attend a Fun­cinpec campaign rally they won’t be allowed to live on CPP land if the CPP wins the election. But he said most people who en­gage in such intimidation tactics are low-level CPP cadre who don’t understand the electoral law.

Chhim Phok, vice chairman of Sam Rainsy’s provincial headquarters, cited four incidents involving party members.

He said authorities stopped a small campaign motorcade for 30 minutes, prevented a party member from tying a banner and detained an activist for 90 minutes allegedly to check for a weapon. He said someone also shot a party signboard with an AK-47 assault rifle.

But Chhim Phok said the incidents occurred early in the campaign, and the atmosphere has improved since. He credits the National Election Commit­tee for promoting a free and fair poll.

Voters, Chhim Phok said, in­creasingly feel comfortable coming to rallies. “Now people understand their rights, they’re not as afraid to show up.”

If true, the improved atmosphere in Prey Veng would seem to run counter to Cambodia as a whole where, according to UN human rights workers, intimidation has intensified recently.

But despite improvement since 1993, it’s clear that intimidation still is a factor. The question is how that will play into voter’s minds when they are at the polls.

On Sunday afternoon, a young civil servant who hadn’t been paid for four months and was talking about the need for reform changed his tune dramatically when two CPP members and a policeman walked up to listen.

One of the CPP members, a high-ranking provincial official, was asked to predict how many of the 11 seats CPP would win.  “Eight or nine,” he said.

“I think maybe all [of the seats],” the civil servant enthusiastically piped in.

The next day, farmer Men Hean explained why people are afraid to express their opinion, even to friends and neighbors.

“We still do not trust each other and we worry that people might report what we say be­cause [that happened] when we used to live in a communist re­gime,” Men Hean said, referring to the Vietnamese-backed government of the 1980s. “People are still not clear about this [new] policy” of democracy.

As a result, Men Hean said, he only talks about farming, and keeps his thoughts about the election private. He did say he wants a society free of corruption.

“Most people here like the CPP,” he said, “but for me I won’t tell who I like yet. I will decide during the vote.”




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