SAMBOR DISTRICT, Kratie province – Without saying a word, 29-year-old Princess Norodom Rattana Devi made her political debut Friday in Kratie—an election battleground some Funcinpec members call the “royalist province.”
Funcinpec remains strong in Kratie, having dominated in the 1993 and 1998 national elections. And Huot Pongly, chief of provincial party headquarters, said the royalists hope having a young scion of royalty topping their Kratie candidate list will counter CPP efforts—such as claiming construction of roads and schools —to loosen Funcinpec’s hold there.
Thousands of supporters turned out for Friday’s rally, donning new Funcinpec-issued hats and shirts. They came in trucks from all over, blaring songs and rhetoric over bullhorns. Party spokesman Ok Socheat said at least 10,000 T-shirts were handed out.
The site for Princess Rattana’s introduction to Kratie’s voters was strategically selected. The reconstructed Pagoda of 100 Columns sits 36 km north of the provincial capital in Sambor district. It was built originally in the 1500s by King Ang Chan Rachea and then razed by Pol Pot, who used the columns for bridge beams, according to Ev Kim, a 76-year-old native and nun.
She said the pagoda is a source of local pride. The people set to rebuilding it, with some funding from the monarchy, shortly after the Khmer Rouge was driven off. But Prime Minister Hun Sen completed the job in the 1990s by contributing 16 concrete columns, making it effectively the Pagoda of 116 Columns.
Regardless, the locals view the pagoda as a symbol of better days under benevolent kings. “It was very clever of Hun Sen to complete the construction” so he would appear to long for such days as well, said Sou Khon, the 67-year-old village chief.
The citizens of Sambor also have a special fondness for a princess. The legend of Princess Kropong Chhuk’s unfortunate end has been passed along by elders for generations.
As they tell it: The princess, daughter to King Ang Chan Rachea, befriended a crocodile that she nurtured from youth. The crocodile, in turn, gave her rides around the lake at Angkor on his back. But the princess eventually became engaged to a Chinese prince and was to move away. The crocodile, jealous and sad, then ate her, so as not to be abandoned. The king had the crocodile disemboweled and recovered his daughters’ remains. T
he tale is told in paintings in a shrine on the Sambor pagoda grounds. And a princess, it is said, still enjoys plenty of sympathy in Sambor.
So Funcinpec arrived in grand style. Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh circled overhead in his helicopter before landing to meet his daughter. They greeted the monks, received blessings and took the stage.
Despite a hoarse throat, presumably strained at Thursday’s Kompong Cham town rally, Prince Ranariddh stumped with evangelical fervor, looking comfortable in his recently renewed role of CPP critic. He blasted government corruption and complacence on border disputes with Vietnam.
“If the country has no king, it means the people are suffering,” he said. “If the King’s party does not win, it will mean the King’s regime is destroyed.”
And then, Princess Rattana, in an ankle length skirt and white Funcinpec shirt, joined her father at the microphone.
“Please, help her with your votes,” Prince Ranariddh said. “A vote for her will mean voting for the King’s regime.”
The princess bowed in several directions, stood for a while, and returned to her chair.
Asked why a high-profile politician would avoid speaking to the electorate in her first campaign, Funcinpec spokesman Ok Socheat gave several frank answers. The princess, who has lived and studied in France for much of her life, cannot speak “fluent Khmer,” he said, and she has little experience in the language of politics.
She also does not yet understand the “CPP game”—which he said included making baseless accusations such as blaming the Olympic Stadium’s controversial make-over on Prince Ranariddh, he said.
She will engage the public in coming years, he said.
Princess Rattana declined to be interviewed in Kratie.
At Sam Rainsy Party headquarters in Kratie town on Friday, much was made over the princess’ limited Khmer. “I heard from people who met her, ‘Oh, she speaks Khmer very poorly and quietly and she does not talk about political policy.’ She does not know what to say to the people,” said Sam Rainsy Party activist Kong Mom, 36.
Kratie’s No 1 Sam Rainsy Party candidate, Senator Chao Phally, said Princess Rattana, when addressed in Khmer, often responds affirmatively by saying “yes” in English.
“This is good luck for me,” he said.
A number of voters did not sound so concerned.
“Although [Princess Rattana] can’t speak Khmer well, she is a Khmer citizen. That is not a problem,” said Non Phala, a riverside vendor.
Kam Phoeun, deputy chief of the CPP’s Kratie office, said Monday that it was a shrewd move for Funcinpec to run the princess in Kratie, but denied that he was concerned about her chances. “We know she is competition, but I ask the people, ‘Do they want the pretty body of the princess, or the bridges, schools and roads?’” he asked.
The CPP has charmed some voters, especially in Snuol district, where roads have been improved considerably. Mok Chan, 49, used to vote Funcinpec, like most people in his village.
“I didn’t see any Funcinpec officials building roads and schools,” he said. “The people are changing their minds.”