pailin – Kong Rith is disappointed Sam Rainsy had not visited this former Khmer Rouge stronghold that voted overwhelmingly for his party in the 1998 elections until two weeks ago, when opposition party members organized a Kathen ceremony here.
Still, the former soldier who is now a mototaxi driver says he will vote for the Sam Rainsy Party in the upcoming commune elections and in the next national race.
“He [Sam Rainsy] disappeared, and he didn’t have much activity, so I have lost some confidence in him,” Kong Rith said. “But I know there is insecurity here so that’s probably why he doesn’t come here.
“Sam Rainsy is a good man and very good to the people. He wants to eliminate corruption, so I will vote for his party again.”
The ruling CPP lobbied hard here two years ago, distributing aid and building schools to gain the votes of former cadre, most of whom were voting in their first election in more than 20 years.
But the opposition party ended up winning the only National Assembly seat from Pailin by taking half of the more than 11,000 votes cast. The CPP gained about 30 percent, while the royalist Funcinpec party won only 20 percent. When the Senate was formed, the Sam Rainsy Party again won Pailin’s sole seat.
And many Pailin residents say they will again go with the SRP in the next elections.
“Sam Rainsy said he will help the poor people and increase salaries for soldiers and civil
servants,” said Kong Samrach, a former Khmer Rouge soldier and now a government soldier. “I don’t mind that he doesn’t come here because I know he is very busy. All my relatives here will vote for Sam Rainsy.”
Although Pailin’s leaders joined the CPP after they defected to the government in 1996, many of the former rank-and-file Khmer Rouge soldiers say they can’t stomach voting for the party whose leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, they fought for so long.
And Sam Rainsy’s platform of fighting corruption and helping the poor is as well received now as it was two years ago by former rebels, many of whom said they are suffering while their commanders are growing rich.
“We fought against Hun Sen for a long time so why should we vote for him?” asked Seng Thoeun, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who is now a Sam Rainsy activist. “That means everything we did before means nothing. Besides, most people support Sam Rainsy because Hun Sen is very corrupt.”
Pailin’s support for Sam Rainsy may seem strange given the opposition leader’s numerous public calls for a Khmer Rouge tribunal, which has prompted angry words from Pailin Governor Y Chhien, a CPP member.
But Seng Thoeun and others say they want a trial because they are tired of their leaders, who promised to look after them when peace finally arrived. Seng Thoeun said when he defected to the government with thousands of other rebel soldiers in 1996, no one took care of him, so he joined the opposition party.
“I am fed up. I’m disappointed that I fought for so long and then they finally dropped me,” he said. “Now the Khmer Rouge are divided by those who support CPP and those who support Sam Rainsy.”
Y Chhien cited “irregularities” as the reason why the CPP did not win in the 1998 elections, and said he couldn’t elaborate.
“People understand who they voted for in the last election and what they got from it,” said Y Chhien, noting that Sam Rainsy has not been active in Pailin since the 1998 elections.
Keo Horn, a CPP member and Pailin’s third deputy governor, predicted the Sam Rainsy Party will not hold all of Pailin’s legislative seats again.
“He never comes here to help the people,” he said. “In the beginning people here put their hopes on him. But after the election, Sam Rainsy never came here so the people are returning to other parties, especially the CPP.”
But none of the 10 former Khmer Rouge soldiers interviewed for this story said they supported the CPP. Most of them said they will vote for the opposition party, while a few said they are undecided.
“After the defection, I stopped supporting the CPP because many soldiers under me were not taken care of,” said Hem Seng Hong, who was asked by the CPP to be its candidate in the Sdao commune election in Banteay Meanchey province. “I don’t know if I will run because right now I am neutral. I will support whoever will help the country.”
Both parties are focusing on the crucial commune elections, tentatively scheduled to take place next year. CPP and Sam Rainsy Party officials say they have already chosen their candidates and are waiting for the commune elections law to pass to begin campaigning.
Keo Horn said party officials in Pailin are sending their list of commune election candidates to the CPP Central Committee for approval.
“We are determined to get more seats,” Keo Horn said. “Now we are training our candidates, teaching them how to work with the people. We tell them to ask the people what their problems are to attract more voters.”
Bhun Chanto, the opposition party’s deputy official in Pailin, said the party chose its commune election candidates after polling people to ask them which potential candidates they liked and didn’t like.
“We do this all in secret because we are worried about security,” he said. “People dare not say in public they will vote for Sam Rainsy.”
Many Rainsy supporters also said they were worried about their security, including one opposition party activist who was thrown in jail for six months after the 1998 elections, when he was charged with falsely accusing others of political intimidation.
But he said he will still actively support Sam Rainsy.
“This is the only party in Cambodia that represents democracy,” he said. “What the party says is genuine. I have no more confidence in our leaders who joined the CPP. They always lie.”