ANLONG VENG DISTRICT, Oddar Meanchey Province – In a different world, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) might have banked on Anlong Veng to form the heartland of its campaign to win this month’s national election.
The most steadfast of the Khmer Rouge’s former strongholds, Anlong Veng’s leaders waged a guerrilla campaign against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen for almost two decades.
Troops from the district were also accused of triggering the July 1997 fighting in Phnom Penh by moving to join forces with Prince Ranariddh’s Funcinpec in an ostensible putsch against Mr. Hun Sen.
Fighters in the area only completed their surrender to Mr. Hun Sen’s government in 1999.
But on Saturday, as the CPP opened its campaign in Anlong Veng with a parade through town that drew thousands of supporters, the closest the opposition CNRP came to receiving any public attention was a brief mention that came from a loudspeaker attached to a billboard featuring a glowing image of Mr. Hun Sen.
“Please fellows, remember that if you vote for Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, it’s like you’re voting for the Khmer Rouge to come back,” trumpeted a voice from a CPP speaker.
The speaker was located opposite the town’s central roundabout—a tawdry faded-yellow obelisk donated by Mr. Hun Sen in 2000, now plastered with white and blue CPP flags.
With the CNRP’s own campaign being launched in Anlong Veng on Saturday, Khlaing Sam Oeun, the CNRP’s district executive head, said that even making the public aware of the opposition party’s existence was proving difficult.
“We don’t have radio and TV, and that makes it extremely hard for us,” he said, adding that the CNRP’s campaigning that morning had consisted of himself and a few other activists walking along dirt roads and talking to people about party policies. Mr. Sam Oeun said he had just 60 volunteers helping his campaign from the 25,000 people who are expected to vote in the district on July 28.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that the opposition’s main strategy in Anlong Veng was to distribute campaign leaflets from door to door to spread the party’s policies.
“We don’t have a big army… [but] we also have a loudspeaker to broadcast our political message—to broadcast our voice from village to village.”
“These are our two main strategies,” he said.
The loudspeaker Mr. Sovann was talking about is attached to Mr. Sam Oeun’s house on the winding dirt streets of Anlong Veng’s outskirts. Over the weekend, the CNRP’s message was being blurted out over empty fields rolling away into the distance.
Anlong Veng district governor Yim Phana said Friday that about 18,000 of the 25,000 voters in the district registered to vote were dedicated CPP supporters, but acknowledged that not everyone in the district was a sure vote.
“Most of the people [who don’t support the CPP] are the people who had problems such as land issues,” he said.
But Mr. Phana was still optimistic that most of the other 7,000 voters would vote for the CPP come election day. He also had plans in place to draw the 400 to 500 people truly dissatisfied with the government back into the CPP fold.
To that end, General Chea Dara, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces based in Preah Vihear province, had been called in to speak for the CPP.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has this great plan having students giving out land titles to the people,” Gen. Dara said Friday. “We will tell the people that since 1998, we have had peace here, and roads and bridges. The CPP is the one that has built all of these things.”
Indeed, for some, Gen. Dara’s message resonates.
Prom Thy, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, said that while he had briefly joined the opposition CNRP after being evicted from his land, he had since reconsidered his political allegiance.
“I was with the opposition party, but now I am with the CPP,” he said. “Before I had a problem with some land in the jungle, but now the land is mine.”
The successes of the ruling party’s land-titling scheme and its apparent development successes have not been the only reasons the CNRP has failed to make inroads in Anlong Veng.
For Anlong Veng pagoda’s chief monk, Soum Sarorn, the main explanation for the opposition’s inability to gain a foothold in the once instinctively anti-government area has been its simple failure to campaign.
“People don’t know them because they haven’t seen them here,” he said.
Now, one year after the CNRP was formed in a merger between the SRP and the Human Rights Party, nobody from the opposition has come to visit Mr. Sarorn.
This was a message echoed in half a dozen other interviews conducted with former Khmer Rouge soldiers in the area.
“Ninety-five percent of the people in this district vote for the CPP,” said one, 60-year-old Loen Ban, who turned out to Saturday’s parade proudly sporting a white CPP shirt and hat, despite having lost his left eye during fighting against the government of Mr. Hun Sen in the 1980s.
“The hospitals, schools and pagodas are built by the CPP,” Mr. Ban explained. “We have not seen an opposition party doing anything here.”
In the rural outskirts of town, one solitary house displays a billboard with the image of CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha holding raised hands.
Suon Samnang, the deputy commune chief of Anlong Veng district’s Trapaing commune, and the owner of the billboard, said that he joined the opposition in 2007 after his land was taken from him by military police.
“After the CNRP wins, they will take the land and return it to the people,” he said, noting that most members of the opposition party in Anlong Veng were land-grab victims.
Still, some voters in the area echoed concerns—raised often by Mr. Hun Sen in the run-up to the election—that the country would fall into a state of civil war if the ruling party does not win the vote.
“I am afraid that change could cause me hardship. It would not be the same; it could cause turbulence and people will be in trouble,” said 34-year-old Theb Thuy.
Another neighbor, 41-year-old Chhun Eng echoed Mr. Thuy’s worries.
“When there’s change, there is always chaos,” he said. “Though I like them [the CNRP], I don’t know what to do. [Voting for the CPP] is to avoid turbulence. Change could cause more hardship.”
Living nearby, Khieu Odom, the son of former Khmer Rouge head of state and current Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal defendant Khieu Samphan, said he was in strong support of the ruling party.
“I am voting for the CPP,” he said, explaining that most people in the area had moved on from the days when the locals fought a fierce armed conflict against the government of Mr. Hun Sen.
“Now people have land for farming, and jobs. I have my own job. If we let other people take over, it might be difficult,” he said.
Mr. Sarorn, the Anlong Veng pagoda’s chief monk, felt much the same. Far from being resentful of the government, he said he believed the CPP should be credited with allowing them to live normally after their surrender.
“People here used to be under the Khmer Rouge—they had fought with the government for such a long time. They now always think that, had the CPP not let them live, they all should have been killed,” Mr. Sarorn said. “The people know that their leaders are with the CPP now, so they dare not betray their leaders.”
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