KOMPONG SIEM DISTRICT, Kompong Cham province – They sometimes stammered, and everyone sweated.
But when three high-profile parliamentary candidates wrangled in debate Sunday before a crowd of about 2,500, they made national history.
Sam Rainsy, president of the Sam Rainsy Party, You Hockry of Funcinpec and CPP parliamentarian Ith Praing addressed issues and questions from the audience in the country’s first debate between the three major parties before a general election.
“This is the first time in my life,” said You Hockry, who is co-Minister of Interior and 22-year Funcinpec official. “I hope, later, there will be a debate between all the presidents of the parties in the elections. I’m waiting for that occasion to come.”
The candidates fielded questions on crime, domestic violence, education and the economy in the 90-minute debate, which was organized by the US-based National Democratic Institute. The debate was aired on Radio Free Asia and is scheduled to be televised on TV9 in July.
“No one could believe that we could have this kind of debate free of violence,” said Muth Channtha, NDI’s senior program manager.
“This is a historical event,” he said. “We’re trying to build a culture of constructive dialogue.”
Amid the ruins of Wat Angkor outside of Kompong Cham town, the candidates responded to four general topics and later took questions from the audience.
Most of the crowd wore Funcinpec hats and T-shirts provided by the local party office, but in this royalist stronghold they generously applauded each candidate’s allotted two-minute response.
Though debate topics varied, Sam Rainsy used the keyword “corruption” to drive home his point.
“The law is only on the mouth of a small group of people,” he said. “They commit corruption and then use that money to bribe the court to release them.”
“Sam Rainsy will eliminate the corruption, find justice for the people,” he said.
He blamed corruption for the poor state of the country’s schools and promised to raise salaries for teachers and other civil servants.
“I will raise the civil servant up to 400,000 riel [about $100 per month], then the civil servants can improve their living standards,” he said, adding he would quit politics if he did not fulfill his promises.
You Hockry said that he will push for approval of the long-stalled anti-corruption bill.
“We demand that the top officials, when they get their position in the government, that they have to announce their property to the public to avoid the corruption,” he said.
All three candidates pledged to fight crime and strengthen national security.
Speaking on domestic violence, You Hockry boasted of the royalist party’s role in creating the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and said education would combat household violence.
“Funcinpec has created the Ministry of Women Affairs in order to protect the women from domestic violence because the violence leads to committing crime and divorce,” he said.
You Hockry repeated Funcinpec’s plan to create a ministry of immigration to halt illegal cross-border travel from Vietnam.
Ith Praing also stressed education, saying the CPP was committed to public education, especially in primary schools.
“CPP will promise to maintain the education sector to offer nine years basic education free to the children,” he said.
The crowd, half of which was trucked in from outside Kompong Cham town, buzzed after each answer. The loudest applause came after a microphone was opened to the crowd, and a middle-aged man asked the candidates about gangs roaming the countryside.
Another attendee, Chey Po, a 43-year-old farmer, said he was a Funcinpec member but would not say for whom he would cast his vote July 27. He said he was most concerned with passing a more prosperous country to his children and the younger generation.
“What they said is good, but I’m not sure the parties will be able to keep their promises,” he said.
Ith Praing is the eighth listed candidate on the CPP’s list in Kompong Cham, the country’s most populated province. You Hockry is second to Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh on Funcinpec’s list in the province.
Sam Rainsy is the top candidate for his party in Kompong Cham.
The NDI, sponsored by USAID, is sponsoring a series of debates in 14 provinces in the run-up to the elections, 12 of which are scheduled to be televised.