banlung district, Ratanakkiri province – Surrounded by anti-corruption posters and curious neighbors, provincial opposition head Kon Chan pulls deeply on a cigarette and tells a story.
He tells of a perilous CPP defection and an alleged attempt on his life. It is a tall tale that no one believes—even the members of his own party.
But opposition officials will take all they can get in a province where the CPP is firmly established. The mere presence of a Sam Rainsy Party affiliate in Ratanakkiri, party members said, is a sign of progress.
Kon Chan “always makes a lot of people unhappy. A lot of people have defected,” said Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay. “But instead of having no one, it’s better to have someone.”
The national Sam Rainsy Party is exhausting little energy to persuade Ratanakkiri’s 51,969 voters to choose its candidate on July 27. The one-seat province is too remote and intertwined with Vietnamese commerce to be a worthwhile investment, Son Chhay said.
But on his own, Kon Chan says, he has spent about $40,000 to promote the party since 1996, using funds earned through his wife’s health care center and other avenues he won’t reveal. None of the money has been spent with regret.
“I want the people to have the right to criticize leaders but the current situation is not like this,” Kon Chan said. “Ratanakkiri is the grass-roots of the communist movement.”
The 51-year-old helped plant those roots in 1978, fighting alongside Vietnamese troops to purge Takeo province of Khmer Rouge forces.
Kon Chan was appointed Takeo’s deputy police chief before moving to Phnom Penh for a stint with the Ministry of Interior and then, in 1984, to Ratanakkiri. As deputy chief of Ratanakkiri’s prison, he and his counterparts were responsible for bruising dozens of prisoners, he said.
Whether it was a softening of heart or pure exhaustion, Kon Chan stopped beating suspects and started questioning them. He said superiors noted the change and tested his allegiance in 1991, allegedly ordering him to kill Funcinpec members.
“But I couldn’t shoot a gun at anyone that hadn’t done me wrong,” he said.
The refusal was considered a betrayal, he said, and he left for the Vietnamese border after what he said was an attempt on his life.
Kon Chan said that upon his return he threatened his colleagues, demanding to know who ordered his killing. He got no response and received only a demotion. He served as Kon Mom district police chief until 1996, when he pledged allegiance to Sam Rainsy’s then-named Khmer Nation Party.
The story, said Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Kheoun, is just not true. “If we wanted to kill him, it wouldn’t be difficult,” he said.
Kham Kheoun, who was Ratanakkiri’s general police chief throughout the early 1990s, claimed the story is a cover-up of Kon Chan’s own transgressions.
“He used state money for his own purposes. When the party found he made a mistake, we withdrew our trust and demoted him. No one tried to threaten his life,” he said.
Even Son Chhay said Kon Chan likely was playing a game to get his job back. But, he said, “we need someone there to keep us in touch with what’s going on. We have to go with who we have.”
Almost 500 supporters joined Kon Chan’s first campaign rally in June, far more than even dared publicize their Sam Rainsy allegiance in 1998, he said. In commune elections last year, the Sam Rainsy Party gained one of Ratanakkiri’s 49 commune seats.
“I’m not upset at losing money because this is the way to struggle, to gain democracy,” Kon Chan said.