tbeng meanchey district, Preah Vihear province – Duong Chenda has been the butt of jokes for his old bike, his dirty clothes and his modest house, but that won’t knock him out of politics.
“For the insults, I won’t complain,” said Duong Chenda, who, as the Sam Rainsy Party’s third candidate, has zero probability of winning the province’s single party seat in this month’s elections.
“The CPP candidate was very poor, too, until he cut down some trees….” Duong Chenda said.
The 42-year-old carpenter says his twisted road to politics was guided by a love for democracy and an aversion to Vietnam. Those impulses led him to fight the Vietnamese in the 1980s, work for the CPP, join ranks with the Khmer Rouge and, finally, join with Sam Rainsy.
Above the door to his home in Tbeng Meanchey hang photos of the opposition leader and of US Senator John McCain, who leads the International Republican Institute. The IRI, along with the US-based National Democratic Institute, trained him this year to campaign in his own grass-roots style, he said.
Since May, Duong Chenda has been touring the province’s villages and talking to people about the Sam Rainsy Party. He says he asks people what they wish the government to do for them, then writes a bulletin pledging to relieve whatever ails them.
He prints the leaflets himself and absorbs most of the costs. Until the beginning of this month, the party had been unable to afford or distribute hats or T-shirts, but Duong Chenda, who earns about $100 a month, said he had spent almost $300 on the campaign.
While the party’s main candidate spends much of his time trying to raise money from Phnom Penh, Duong Chenda is practically the public face of the opposition party in Preah Vihear.
“From house to house, door to door, I went through the province,” he said. “Mostly people said they don’t care which political party wins, only that it helps after the election.”
And the Sam Rainsy Party will help, Duong Chenda said, by sweeping out corruption and ending the so-called infiltration by Vietnam.
Claiming to have seen Vietnamese soldiers slaughter children as they marched to Phnom Penh in 1979, Duong Chenda’s anti-Vietnam sentiment drove him to the jungle to fight alongside his former tormentors.
As a child in Takeo province during the Pol Pot years, his mother and father were tagged as spies for Lon Nol and jailed, and his sister and brother-in-law were killed. Meanwhile, he was forced to chop wood.
But in 1990, after working three years as a deputy director for administration in Preah Vihear, he took up arms with the Khmer Rouge rebels. The CPP, he said, was making too many concessions to the Vietnamese.
“It was a different Khmer Rouge” than in the 1970s, he insisted. “They were about keeping territory.”
Duong Chenda was later wowed by Sam Rainsy’s rhetoric against the CPP and its connections to Vietnam. He joined the party in 1995.
His political life remains a fight. During the 1998 elections, a commune officer made a threat on his life, and he fled to the low mountains visible from his porch.
This year, he said, the CPP has publicly insulted him.
“They say, ‘How can you vote for these poor people?’” Duong Chenda said.
A CPP official in Preah Vihear denied that the party made any verbal attack on Duong Chenda.
When asked by a reporter last week, several residents of Preah Vihear said they had never heard of Duong Chenda. Only Nin Nara, a 27-year-old laborer and Sam Rainsy Party supporter, said he had once worked with him.
Still, Duong Chenda remains optimistic about this month’s general elections. He said that the opposition party gained ground in the 2002 commune elections, beating out Funcinpec, and that his grass-roots campaign is drawing support.
“I don’t want the power so much,” Duong Chenda said. “What we need is democracy. My intention is to win over the CPP in 2003.”