Obscure Party Wages Lonely Fight Against Vietnam

The top two party leaders have gone into hiding. Their Tuol Kok district headquarters were all but deserted on Tuesday morning. And their main annual event, a Jan 7 protest that is shut down each year by the authorities, was stifled this weekend at its inception.

But for the ultra-nationalist Khmer Front Party, a little-known entity that treads on the fringes of Cambodian politics, it is business as usual.

A sign that reads “Khmer Front Party Cabinet” hangs over the thatch-roofed hut that constitutes the party office. It is a grandiose title for such a humble structure, but party President Suth Dina spoke earnestly in an interview last week of the issues facing Cambo­dia, and how his party proposes to solve them.

“I decided to form a new party to detach from all the leaders who are involved” in Cambodian politics, he said. “We focus on youth mem­bers because we want Cam­bodia to be led by clean officials drawn from youth and students.”

Educated in Cambodia and abroad, Suth Dina knows the rhetoric of opposition and adroitly maps out his vision for an independent, Western-style democracy.

But these days, many hear KFP as a shrill nationalist voice, with an anti-Vietnamese tenor. Party leaders are not shy about using the derogatory word “yuon” to des­cribe the Vietnamese influence they see as pervading every level of Cambodian politics.

“First, we look to the independence of the country from Viet­nam. This is the blockade for Cam­­­bodia to reach democracy—the secret influence of Vietnam,” Suth Dina explained.

“I want to stress that the Khmer Front Party is not racist,” he added. “But we want Cambodia and Vietnam to be clear about the his­tory, about the border land and expansionist policies.”

He claims that some 2 million il­legal Vietnamese immigrants hold voting cards in Cambodia, and al­leges that Vietnam wishes to as­similate Cambodia into a com­munist bloc in Indochina to rival Chi­na’s regional power.

A Vietnamese Embassy official de­clined comment on the party, and the embassy did not respond to faxed requests for interview.

The party sees itself as allied with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and the international community—neither of which seems especially comfortable with that association.

Suth Dina said he appreciated the work of the Sam Rainsy Party but said he could not join because its leadership is drawn from “ex-communist elite.”

Opposition officials bristled at that assessment. “That party is too ex­­treme in its nationalism,” opposition lawmaker Keo Remy said, ad­ding that Suth Dina’s attitude to­ward illegal immigrants fails to take the law and human rights in­to ac­count.

Members of the international community also said the KFP was a tough sell.

“Given the extreme views they tend to put across, it could be difficult for the international community to be seen to be dealing with this party,” a foreign diplomat said.

Still, Suth Dina said his party has not lost the faith of its core supporters: students and workers’ groups.

He claims the party boasts around 100,000 members with branch offices in every pro­vince, and describes their meetings as reg­ular but secret.

But since its inception in 2003, the party appears to be in a holding pattern of occasional bold at­tacks, and near-constant retreat.

Saturday’s cancelled demonstration against the government’s cele­brations for the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge was an example: The party announced a passionate pro­­test, was denied per­mission by the municipality, can­celed the protest and scattered, claiming police had surrounded their party headquarters, which police officials denied. The party views Jan 7 as the start of the Viet­namese occupation.

Now, Suth Dina and the party’s vice president are in hiding for the second time in less than a year, said Mao Sam Oeurn, the par­ty’s general secretary. He de­clined to name the vice president.

“Right now our leaders are in hiding and our activists are silent. We consider this a situation of in­ti­­midation and fear,” he said.

Suth Dina said he spent July to November of last year hiding in the jungle near the Thai border, dis­­guised as a Buddhist novice.

His flight followed a direct warning from Prime Minister Hun Sen last June over his criticism on the border issue, he said.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the idea that the government persecuted the KFP was absurd. “Why are they hiding? There is no warrant,” he said. “Do you think the CPP considers this party as a threat?… It’s a very, very small party,” he said.

He added that Hun Sen considered Suth Dina “a brother” and had bought him a house in Takeo pro­vince. But Suth Dina and his col­leagues say theirs is a difficult and lone­ly opposition against an ever-consolidating ruling coalition.

“If there is no intervention to stop this action, maybe Cambodia cannot be restored and will fall back to the one-party system. Then, Cam­bodia cannot stand up again,” Suth Dina said.

   (Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann)

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