Hun Sen’s Helicopter Hits the Campaign Trail

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s luxury helicopter has covered more kilometers than usual recently.

A spate of provincial trips has seen the premier fly to seven prov­inces in almost as many days, whirlwind visits that some say herald the launch of the ruling CPP’s election campaign.

Inaugurating everything from new bridges to schools, pagodas to small country roads, the prime minister has been busy re-establishing contact with his grassroots supporters and firing off speeches, aired on national radio, that criticize his political rivals.

Though never a stranger to rural Cambodia, Hun Sen has re­cently filled his schedule with trips to more remote parts of the country, a campaign that won’t be canceled even for his 53rd birthday on Friday.

“You know he has a very tight schedule,” Ministry of Informa­tion Secretary of State Khieu Kan­harith said Tuesday.

While that schedule usually ties Hun Sen to meetings with local and foreign dignitaries in Phnom Penh, a recent falloff in the number of official engagements has freed him to travel in the prov­inces, Khieu Kanharith said.

It’s not election campaigning, it’s just free time spent where Hun Sen prefers to be, Khieu Kan­harith added.

“He is the one who understands the people, and he decides to go. Hun Sen knows how to talk with the people,” he said.

But boosting his personal profile ahead of the polls, is not least among Hun Sen’s objectives in his recent hectic, traveling schedule across the country, said Chea Vannath president of the Center for Social Development.

“Now it is campaigning season for politicians to strengthen their political parties, including the prime minister,” Chea Vannath said.

The prime minister inaugurates important public works projects, but events give him access to media and opportunities to campaign, said Chea Vannath.

“He is killing two birds with one arrow,” she said.

Sok Soriya, an official at Hun Sen’s cabinet, denied his travels were linked to the upcoming elections.

“The prime minister has, lately, made constant trips because he has to inaugurate various achievements. [His visits] were requested by the people,” said Sok Soriya.

On March 25, Hun Sen opened a school in Skun, Kompong Cham province. On Thursday, he officiated at a ground breaking ceremony at a pagoda in Kandal province.

He was back in Kompong Cham province on Saturday for a bridge opening ceremony and then traveled to Prey Veng province on Monday. Tuesday saw the prime minister in Takeo province, and today he is scheduled to be in Kompong Thom province.

On Thursday, Hun Sen is again scheduled to be in Kompong Cham. On his birthday on Friday, he will inaugurate a new bridge in Kratie province, according to an itinerary of his travels.

Like King Norodom Sihanouk did on his 80th birthday last October, Hun Sen has toned down celebrations of his birthday and for the past couple of years has told well-wishers to spend their money on ordinary people and not on flowers for him, Khieu Kanharith said.

But, whether the prime minister is visiting the provinces on his birthday or not, it takes weeks of planning, said sources familiar with his movements.

Before the premier lifts off from Phnom Penh, truckloads of his bodyguards will have traveled to the location beforehand.

Hun Sen’s trusted bodyguards must arrive at least one day ahead of him, scouting the security situation and mingling with local police and military police units who are also assigned to provide protection.

“Security must always be heavy when our prime minister visits an area because we make sure nothing will bother his trip,” said one Hun Sen bodyguard.

Hun Sen also sends a large group of singers and comedians whose job it is to entertain people in places he visits, and the traveling show is in demand, party officials said.

“Whenever he visits, he always promises to give us schools and roads at our request,” said Ou Sochea, CPP deputy governor of Takeo province’s Bati district.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle)

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