CHOEUNG PREY COMMUNE, Kompong Cham Province – At 7:50 a.m., the prime minister’s helicopter circled this rural village in Kompong Cham province.
Soon after, a convoy of SUVs pulled up to the colorfully adorned Kiri Monisavorn pagoda and Mr. Hun Sen walked in with two-dozen security guards and a band of senior government officials.
Some 5,000 people had been trucked in Monday from Batheay district to watch Mr. Hun Sen’s speech—his last nationally broadcast remarks before stepping out of the spotlight during the official monthlong election campaign season that starts Thursday.
With a big smile spread across his face, Mr. Hun Sen made a beeline to the crowd. Then, in front of a giant billboard depicting the prime minister harvesting rice paddy clad in a red krama, he reached into the crowd and allowed people to touch his arms as he shook his supporters’ hands and patted the heads of their children.
Fifteen minutes later, he stood on a stage alongside scores of high-ranking CPP officials, who had dutifully followed him to this rural location.
While Mr. Hun Sen’s ensuing speech included more than an hour of off-the-cuff remarks on current events and Cambodia’s political climate, the assembled crowd did not come alive until the end of the two-hour speech, when he announced a wave of new development that he promised would be delivered to the district if the CPP is returned to power come July 28.
“The monks at Inkorsie pagoda in Chealea commune asked us to provide a temple roof and a new school building. We will give it to you!” he shouted.
The audience erupted in applause.
“The teachers in Choeung Prey commune secondary school asked for a new building. We will give it to you!” Mr. Hun Sen exclaimed.
Again, the crowd cheered, waving national flags made from paper above their heads.
Mr. Hun Sen also announced that he would be handing out gifts to those in the crowd.
Students in attendance, he said, would each receive two books, a pen and 5,000 riel, or about $1.25. Their teachers would each receive 30,000 riel, or about $7.50. Two hundred of the elderly audience members and 200 volunteers for the Red Cross Youth and Scouts would each receive 10,000 riel, or about $2.50.
Mr. Hun Sen handed out the offerings to representatives of each group upon completing his speech with a final call for support from the audience.
“Vote for the Cambodian People’s Party to give me a chance to continue as prime minister. Vote for peace and political stability. Vote for more development,” he said.
In the run-up to this year’s national election, Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly threatened that the country would descend into war if his party was not re-elected. He has also said that projects such as the new pagoda building inaugurated Monday would cease in the event of a new government.
But Monday’s display of benevolence has become a hallmark of Mr. Hun Sen’s campaigning and showed exactly why the prime minister continues to generate such far-reaching appeal, especially in rural areas where a 5,000 riel gift and some stationery goes a long way.
While almost the entire country outside of Phnom Penh could be accurately described as a citadel of CPP power—90 of the National Assembly’s 123 seats are held by the ruling party—Kompong Cham, the most populated province in the country, was among the most hotly contested jurisdictions in the 2008 general election.
In that ballot, the CPP won 11 out of 18 seats in the province, followed by the SRP with 5 seats and the Human Rights Party (HRP) and Norodom Ranariddh Party, which each won one seat.
This year, a number of the CPP’s highest-profile members top the list for the ruling party in Kompong Cham province, the birthplace of the prime minister.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin leads the CPP’s candidate list, followed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong; former Kompong Cham governor Hun Neng, who is also the brother of Mr. Hun Sen; Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith; and Minister of Rural Development and former Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), formed when the SRP and HRP merged in July, has its acting president, Kem Sokha, at the top of its list in Kompong Cham province.
But if anyone in attendance at Mr. Hun Sen’s speech on Monday had any plans to back a party other than the CPP, it didn’t show.
The majority of the crowd, which began arriving on trucks at 6 a.m., were sporting either crisp white shirts or hats emblazoned with the CPP’s logo—a devada spreading flowers encircled by bundles of rice straw.
Sam Em, a 26-year-old laborer from a nearby village, was decked out in CPP apparel as he entered the pagoda. He said his village chief had handed out the clothes and told him and his neighbors to take a truck to the speech.
It was his first time seeing the prime minister in person, though Mr. Em said he watches his speeches on television at least twice a week.
“The CPP does a lot of construction. They build roads, schools and pagodas. Most of the places have Hun Sen’s name on them,” adding that if the CPP were to lose this election, he worried that the country might descend into war.
A number of the people in attendance had been camped out for the previous three days, joining monks in the groundbreaking of a new temple at the pagoda that dwarfed the surrounding buildings.
During his speech, Mr. Hun Sen mentioned that he had personally contributed $22,000—along with $110,000 from Mr. Namhong—to build the temple, which cost a total of $320,000.
Sam Muong, 66, a layman at the pagoda, said that the temple returned the pagoda to its pre-Khmer Rouge grandeur.
“Previously, we only had a wooden temple. There used to be a temple like this here, but it was torn down during the Pol Pot regime,” he said, adding that in the past 30 years, the CPP has led sweeping development in the area, building everything from hospitals to wells.
Peng Sreytout, 17, a student at Batheay district’s Hun Sen High School, who was dressed in full scout uniform, said she loved the speech.
“Hun Sen has led the country well. He has brought peace to the country and built a lot of schools and hospitals,” she said, adding: “I haven’t seen the CNRP do anything.”
Batheay district governor Lor Chanly, who organized Monday’s event, said that it was important for Mr. Hun Sen and other CPP lawmakers to visit rural areas in order to explain their plan for development on a local level.
“Hun Sen committed to nearly a million dollars of development in this area today,” he said.
Asked if the prime minister’s promises and handing out of cash at the event, just over a month before elections, amounted to vote buying, Mr. Chanly demurred.
“It’s not buying votes. It is finding solutions. People need roads for walking and schools for studying. But it is all linked together. When they see a good road they are more likely to vote for the CPP,” he said.