pailin town, Battambang province – Amid the dusty one-level shacks and squat concrete shop houses of this former rebel stronghold is a jarring reminder of the Sam Rainsy Party’s sudden seizure of Pailin’s one parliamentary seat in the 1998 elections, and its quiet, though steady, intrusion into the lives of the ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers living here.
The well-ordered opposition party headquarters contrasts sharply with the ramble of buildings on either side of it. But what’s most noticeable is the huge mural of Sam Rainsy, eyes raised upward and palms pressed in seeming applause as he gives thanks to some unknown entity.
This iconoclastic image perhaps represents the best and worst of Cambodia’s opposition leader. His opponents, both in Cambodia and abroad, have accused him of using the country’s volatile political arena to create a cult of personality that appeals more to his foreign audience than his fellow Cambodians.
But for opposition party followers, the 4-meter-by-3-meter mural invokes a quiet, almost pious strength in an area that until recently was under the rigid control of the Khmer Rouge.
“Other people talk about democracy. But the Sam Rainsy Party practices it. That is why I joined,” said Ya Chak Yang, a 48-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier who first joined the ruling CPP after leaving the crumbling Khmer Rouge movement in 1996.
Two years later, disillusioned by what he calls a “trap of easy booze and girls” laid by Pailin’s CPP for former Khmer Rouge members, Ya Chak Yang became an opposition party member. Today, he is one of about 80 candidates or substitute candidates—more than double what is needed by the party—for next February’s elections in Pailin’s eight communes.
“We have many more than what is required, we have too many,” said Sou Chandeth, the party’s young Pailin boss.
This enthusiasm for democracy, especially among the former Khmer Rouge, is a clear signal that the Sam Rainsy Party could hold on to some of the political turf it wrestled away from the CPP and Funcinpec three years ago.
In 1998 the Sam Rainsy Party won nearly half of the 11,731 votes cast in Pailin, leaving the polls 2,391 votes ahead of the CPP, according to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
But a good showing in the commune elections might prove more difficult for the Sam Rainsy Party, according to one Comfrel official.
“On the national level [the Sam Rainsy Party] is more strong than in 1998, but on the local level maybe they don’t have enough skill to organize or deal with the authorities. They might not know how to sustain the party’s activities,” the official said.
Sou Chandeth maintains the party is better organized today, pointing out that “in 1998 we had no local structure and we still won. Now the Sam Rainsy Party has some order.”
Perhaps an even greater obstacle to the opposition’s bid for commune leadership is Pailin’s Khmer Rouge roots and a still-prevailing ideology that allows little dissent.
“Some behavior can be changed, but that depends on how much training you offer. [In Pailin] this is going to be very difficult. These people are not like students who have finished their classes. I think they are going to need a special methodology,” the Comfrel official said.
Both Sou Chandeth and Ya Chak Yang admit that trying to hold fair elections in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold presents a unique set of difficulties.
Sou Chandeth says former cadres now serving on the provincial election committee don’t understand the election law and tend to report on election-related events to Pailin authorities before telling the National Election Committee.
The more immediate problem of intimidation persists, becoming especially noticeable last month, Sou Chandeth said.
“It’s hard to be a democracy here. If we stand up and criticize we will be silenced. They will always make an accusation against us,” Ya Chak Yang said.
“These are the problems in former Khmer Rouge areas—the leaders are always former Khmer Rouge and they do not think about democracy. It is just like the old regime.”
In Pailin and across Battambang province, both Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec members have been arrested in a nationwide sweep of those persons authorities claim are members of the anti-government Cambodian Freedom Fighters.
Nearly two dozen suspects have been detained from the region. Opposition leaders have complained the arrests are more an attempt by the CPP to disable political opponents rather than to ensure national security.
Accusations that the CPP is targeting opposition politicians by using the campaign against the CFF has been roundly denied. CPP officials have countered that Sam Rainsy is unfairly using the crackdown to rally support for his party and hide his own flagging popularity.
“The situation is changing in Pailin because Sam Rainsy has not given what his party’s propaganda promised in 1998,” said CPP official Keo Horn, Pailin’s third deputy governor. “A majority of the people in Pailin do not believe the Sam Rainsy Party anymore because they see nothing from them.”