When a string of execution-style murders were carried out in late February, some opposition party workers fled their homes in the provinces and fear of soldiers was rampant.
Now, deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and fellow opposition candidate Sam Rainsy are traveling those same provinces, saying whatever they like with little intimidation.
Government and CPP officials consider the opposition’s freedom to campaign a key indicator of “free and fair elections.” They hope the safety of opposition politicians will foster an acceptance of elections by the international community.
“This is the situation we want,” said Ith Sam Heng, cabinet director for the CPP, citing collaboration between the National Election Committee and the government to establish security precautions. “Because we want free and fair elections.”
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the initiative began at a recent seminar held by the NEC that was attended by high-level security officials.
“During the seminar each party discussed very thoroughly about how to…secure the political process,” he said. “All the Cambodians, they well understand that only the free and fair election will resume the legal seat of Cambodia at the UN.”
The UN in September decided to leave the Cambodian seat at the world body vacant after a CPP-Funcinpec dispute over who would represent Cambodia.
Sao Sokha, deputy commander of national military police, said security forces have followed NEC requests and a directive from the prime ministers for election safety. “We have made a decision to provide security,” he said. “I think so, from now until elections, security will be good.”
A senior human rights worker in Phnom Penh called the freedom of Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh to travel “a sign that the government has shown good will, especially because they want [elections] legitimized by the international community.”
But the rights worker accused the CPP of stacking election committees and legal bodies with their party members, and said the international community has “low expectations” if it accepts the freedom of campaign as the sole indicator of political good will.
An Asian diplomat called the freedom to travel and speak freely “a big concession” on the part of the ruling party.
However, the diplomat, noting Prince Ranariddh on Sunday only drew 150 people at a provincial party office opening, said ordinary people fear local authorities.
“The crowd was a little bit too small for his charisma, so I think it has to do with intimidation,” he said. “Whether he can garner enough of an audience or not, that is the issue. If he goes to one rally and there are only 150 supporters, that is a big indicator. Something is wrong somewhere.”
Mu Sokhua, a Funcinpec candidate for parliament from Battambang who has closely monitored reports of intimidation at the local level, said the extreme tension and intimidation felt earlier this year has slackened.
“I don’t think it is as tense as it was in February or after the coup but I think we are still wary of the local authorities,” she said in a telephone interview from Battambang. “[Grassroots activists] know that they are still being monitored. In some communes, you still cannot put up signs.”
According to human rights workers and opposition party activists, complaints of election-related intimidation soared beginning in January.
Many opposition party complaints dealt with cases of intimidation and threats from soldiers. In some cases, like Ourn Phourng in Prey Veng or Mom Yem in Kampot, grassroots activists were gunned down. Sam Rainsy Party workers and rights workers noted the bulk of recent complaints were about registration officials seizing membership cards rather than soldiers threatening party activists.
(Additional reporting by Chris Decherd)