banan district, Battambang province – Former royalist general Nhiek Bun Chhay fled on foot across the northwest in 1997, dodging a massive dragnet by troops loyal to then-second prime minister Hun Sen after the routing of his Funcinpec army and the ousting of party leader and then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
On Saturday Nhiek Bun Chhay, now second deputy president of the Senate, was back in his old battlegrounds in Battambang province delivering two things: Rice to poverty-stricken supporters, and a message that Funcinpec is not a dead party.
Breaking a four-year party silence—as well as the unofficial Funcinpec line that all is well with the CPP, the royalists’ coalition partner—Nhiek Bun Chhay blasted government inaction on border encroachment, illegal immigration and massive corruption he said was beggaring the Cambodian people.
“I came here to watch if aid is getting to the people…because the government asks $500 million to $600 million each year [from donors] and borrows more,” Nhiek Bun Chhay told a crowd of more than 300 supporters on Saturday, who gathered at a pagoda here to receive royalist party assistance.
Cambodia’s foreign debt is mounting and yet development and poverty alleviation are not keeping pace with government borrowing, Nhiek Bun Chhay told the villagers.
“Is this how to reduce poverty?… Where does the money go?” Nhiek Bun Chhay asked, adding that dividing the foreign debt would mean each Cambodian owes more than $1,000.
The stocky former soldier also charged government officials with not taxing big businesses on imported construction materials, and claimed that half of the tax revenue is collected is siphoned off by corrupt officials.
“Half [the tax] goes to the national budget. Half goes to the pocket,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
“If all the tax went to the national budget the salaries of teachers, soldiers, police officers and government officials would increase and money would be kept for old people and people who have shortages.”
Handing over 10 kg of rice, sarongs, vitamins, medicine and 3,000 riel to each person, Nhiek Bun Chhay apologized that the assistance was small, but said it was made up of personal donations from National Assembly, Senate and Funcinpec members, and was to show the party had not forgotten their supporters.
Crowds of harried mothers in bright sarongs and bored men smoking cigarettes behind them gradually fixed on Nhiek Bun Chhay’s words as he moved on to criticize the government’s inability to solve border encroachment.
Nhiek Bun Chhay said the CPP was unable to negotiate border issues with Vietnam because of the debt owed to Hanoi when it helped overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
He also targeted corrupt officials who allow illegal immigrants to enter the country while at the same time enforcing a government order that soldiers and police seal the borders to Montagnard refugees fleeing from Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
The UN should be allowed build a refugee camp in Cambodia in order to determine which people qualify for third country resettlement, Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
Previously unknown as a public speaker, Nhiek Bun Chhay’s down-to-earth address and liberal use of old Khmer sayings showed a different side to the royalist party, which has long been criticized for harboring an aloofness that separates it from many ordinary Cambodians.
“What Nhiek Bun Chhay said is right,” said Sao My, 34 in Banan district.
“Cambodia is in poverty and the government officials are corrupt and they do not help the people earn a living,” she said.
Nhiek Bun Chhay’s simple delivery of speeches was not lost on another member of the crowd, who said his grass-roots oratory style was more akin to Hun Sen-like folksiness than royalist officialdom.
“He speaks as good as Hun Sen. But I dare not say who speaks better,” said 21-year-old Ham Sophean.
Speaking later, 56-year-old Nhiek Bun Chhay was blunt about his mission in the northwest: repair Funcinpec’s floundering image and highlight low standards in high places of government, and that included individuals in his own party.
“Before we did not talk much because the situation was tense since 1997,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “Now the situation is peaceful but Funcinpec has to speak because foreigners and Cambodians always say Funcinpec is under CPP control,” he said.
“If we do not talk now the people will not understand.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay said Funcinpec supports his recently launched Club of Nationalist Resistance—a social fund for poverty stricken supporters, mainly former resistance fighters—which coordinated last weekend’s program in Battambang.
Funcinpec also approved of him raising the issues of corruption, the border and poverty.
“I just talk so others will talk,” he said. “This is not propaganda or campaigning for the election. What I am doing is on behalf of the Senate and for the people.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay said government leaders are expected to set examples for the people. But through corruption and promiscuous lifestyles, some officials were now unfit to tell ordinary people how to behave.
“It is not just the CPP. Corruption also affects people in Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party,” he said.
Planning to take his message and assistance across Cambodia, Nhiek Bun Chhay said he was worried about his safety and believes he is under constant police surveillance.
Unlike other prominent Cambodian politicians, a Funcinpec member said Nhiek Bun Chhay traveled with only one bodyguard to Battambang. Explaining the logic of less security, he said “If they wanted to kill him, 500 bodyguards wouldn’t stop them.”
However, a senior Interior Ministry official said on Monday that Nhiek Bun Chhay was not under surveillance.
As a senator, Nhiek Bun Chhay had the right to distribute assistance, but the contents of his speeches in Battambang will be studied, the official said.
“The two parties [Funcinpec and CPP] will discuss together about his speech. In cooperation, the two parties will see if [it was] good or not good.”
But how much support Nhiek Bun Chhay will have inside his own party may emerge as a major question.
Several senior Funcinpec members expressed concern at the launch of Nhiek Bun Chhay’s club last week, citing security concerns ahead of next year’s general election.
One senior party member was more pragmatic, saying Nhiek Bun Chhay’s efforts were without profit and could upset the CPP-Funcinpec political apple-cart for everyone.
But royalist parliamentarian Keo Remy said on Monday that Funcinpec members should rally behind Nhiek Bun Chhay. Speaking out on issues was good for fostering debate and finding a solution to the country’s problems, he said.
“We are not wrong in talking. But we would be wrong if we build up armies or things that destabilize the country,” Keo Remy said.
Nhiek Bun Chhay also issued a veiled warning that if Funcinpec did not support his work, and promote the interests of Cambodia he would re-assess his future role.
“I still follow Funcinpec when Funcinpec is thinking about the people and the nation. Now the party is thinking,” he said.(Additional reporting Lor Chandara)