In Kompong Cham, Sympathy’s With Protesters

kompong cham town – As his feet sank in the muddy sands on the edge of the Mekong River, fisherman Nath Sitha was a long way from the demonstrators in Phnom Penh. But his thoughts were not so far from those braving the bullets and beatings of the last three weeks.

“I really support the idea of a recount and also the demand for [Second Prime Minister] Hun Sen to step down,” said the 30-year-old fisherman, his long, narrow boat anchored a few meters offshore.

Others in Nath Sitha’s village across the river from Kompong Cham town also have little sympathy for the government, he said, but plenty for those who are discontent with the electoral process. “Many people support the idea of a demonstration,” he added, who spoke freely but de­clined to have his photo taken.

Nath Sitha also denounced the violent tactics used to scare off protesters, which left two people dead and several dozen others injured from gun butts or electric batons. “It’s absolutely wrong,” he said.

Indeed, few people interviewed in the capital of the nation’s most populous province expressed support for the government’s handling of the protests. They universally condemned the violence, particularly against monks, and said the government hasn’t done enough to compromise.

Of the 21 people interviewed randomly here Monday and Tuesday, from farmers to businessmen, only two supported the government’s position of using force against protesters. One of the pro-government speakers sported a golf shirt featuring Hun Sen’s name.

“It’s anarchy. It’s violence,” said Kyong Aun, a restaurant owner. “They destroy public property and cause the death of people.”

Thousands of demonstrators, initially led by the Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy parties, have been protesting the results of the July 26 elections. Their demands began with a call for ballot re­counts and a change in the formula for allocating parliamentary seats, but soon developed into calls for Hun Sen to step down as the CPP’s candidate for prime minister, and briefly flared into anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and violence.

Kyong Aun said it is time for opposition politicians to get on with forming a new government.

“They need to respect the will of the people who voted,” he said. “They should join the National Assembly. They should not poison the atmosphere any more.”

But many others blame the government for the stalemate.

“People all think the government should compromise by recounting some of the votes,” said Thy Dary, 24, a drink and food vendor on the Kompong Cham riverfront.

She wonders what the government has to hide, and compares its reluctance to a student who doesn’t want to take an exam because he is not prepared. “If you really believe that you won,” she said, “why are you still afraid of the truth?”

Over and over, people said the same thing.

“I support the idea of recounting, and, if possible, holding another election,” said Chon Ny, laughing at the pro­spect of the latter, as she and her family sat in their tiny fish-seller’s shack on the shores of the Me­kong.

Most of the people interviewed in Kompong Cham town considered the act of recounting a “little thing,” but cash-strapped government officials have said they lack the funds to do any more election work.

In addition, the few recounts that were conducted showed little change from original tallies.

Kompong Cham, with 18 legislative seats, traditionally leans against the CPP. Funcinpec won the 1993 elections here, and, combined with Sam Rainsy Party, grabbed 11 seats to the CPP’s seven in the July polls.

Despite the pro-opposition sentiment, residents and police said there is little chance of demonstrations spreading to Kompong Cham town.

Lim Sopheng, a businessman traveling the Mekong by fast boat, said Phnom Penh was the only place such demonstrations could occur because of the mix of people and the size of the city. In the provinces, he said, people are too scared they would be identified by local authorities. And many in the countryside lack adequate information to know what’s going on, he added.

In Kompong Cham town, many of those interviewed said they get their news from opposition newspapers.

“Everyday we are gathering and talking about this shooting issue,” said news vendor Meng Sophal.

Others get their information from CNN if they can afford it, or from Voice of America radio.

But many complained that government-run media didn’t provide enough news, or they simply re­lied on word-of-mouth.

“I don’t have any information about [the demonstrations] be­cause I don’t have a radio or TV,” said Lot Sambo, harvesting pea­nuts under the shade of a tree about 10 km from Kompong Cham town. “So I’m not able to express any ideas. I just work at my job as a farmer.”

One of the hottest topics for those who were informed was the violence police used to disperse protesting monks. Many Kompong Cham residents were not keen on the idea of monks taking part in protests, but in the same breath denounced the po­lice actions.

“The authorities absolutely should not shoot the monks, because the monks do not use violence and have no weapons,” said Sim Sao, a hotel employee.

On top of Phnom Srei, a popular retreat for those seeking fresh air or spiritual retreat near Kom­pong Cham, two 20-year-old students wanted to know exactly who was hurting the monks. They also said the government should conduct more recounts.

“I think it is an injustice. They have to count again,” said Suy Kosal, who finds it hard to believe the CPP won the election. If there are no recounts, he said, “I will join the Sam Rainsy Party to protest.”

Son Chanpal, an RCAF artillery captain, said the time for violence is over. “It’s up to the high-ranking officials of the government and opposition to compromise and negotiate to find a solution to the conflict,” he said. “They should talk face-to-face for such a small demand as this. Politicians argue with each other, but people are the victims.”



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