battambang town – Despite threats made to popular candidates if they run in the anticipated 2001 communal elections, rivals of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the country’s northwest are working hard to pull in votes.
Here in the nation’s second largest city, both Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party officials say they have been training their party members on human rights and democracy, so they can educate voters on the election process and allay their concerns about political intimidation.
The election process remains undetermined as the government in Phnom Penh continues to drag its feet in organizing the balloting. A date has not been set, and will not be until a commune administration law and a commune election law are passed.
Funcinpec has been the more active of the two parties in preparing for the commune elections because it has more existing power in local governments, thanks to the coalition deal reached with the dominant CPP following the 1998 national elections.
“We feel so encouraged now to do political activity here, because we have some of our people in local government,” said Men Sakhan, a member of Funcinpec’s Battambang province branch.
He admitted the national party was not spending any money here this far in advance of a possible election, but he said local parliamentarians and other government officials were spending enough of their own money to keep Funcinpec visible in the region.
Men Sakhan did say his party’s activists, especially the commune election candidates, are already being intimidated by powerful people in their home communes.
Three candidates living in Mong Russei district were threatened with death and loss of land by CPP supporters using a loudspeaker during a pagoda ceremony, according to a report sent to Funcinpec’s provincial office.
CPP officials here deny any political intimidation against either the opposition Sam Rainsy Party or coalition partner Funcinpec. In an effort to solve party disputes locally, CPP and Funcinpec in Battambang province agreed recently on the creation of a joint committee to work out all disputes at the district level.
Elsewhere in Cambodia party officials have reported various forms of intimidation. In early June, a Funcinpec activist and his wife were fatally shot in Kampot province in what some party officials called the first political killing of the communal elections.
Sam Rainsy Party officials in the northwest have not reported any such threats. Their party’s activity seems less apparent than Funcinpec’s, due to their lack of positions at the local level. Just two training workshops have been held in Battambang province on human rights and democracy, according to party officer Chea Saroeun.
Similar workshops in other provinces have routinely been disrupted, often by crowds alleging to be disgruntled Sam Rainsy Party members, although party officials say they are more likely paid by local CPP bosses to break up the gatherings.
The opposition party—which placed third in the 1998 national election—has been erecting signs across the province, especially on Route 5 toward Sisophon and Poipet, the two biggest towns in adjacent Banteay Meanchey province. Chea Saroeun said new signs had been put up in eight districts. “We have recently raised up more party signs because we believe they would be a helpful way to strengthen the party.”
Opposition activists said there is still plenty of time for political intimidation before the commune elections, which are slated for next year. They point to the arrest and imprisonment of such prominent politicians as Sok Yoeun, Kang Bun Heng and Mong Davuth.
Chea Saroeun said local authorities—most of whom were put in place in the 1980s by the People’s Revolution party of Kampuchea, which later became the CPP—are using many means to influence opposition activists. “They use threats and peaceful means to silence us,” he said. “But we are strengthening ourselves so we don’t get cheated.”
Tot Reh, a Sam Rainsy Party-appointed communal candidate in Battambang’s Sangke District, said that so far he has not received any threats. “And if there is, we do not have to be afraid,” he said. “We just struggle for justice and democracy.”
In a late June trip to the Northwest, opposition leader Sam Rainsy met many party members in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces. He called for more solidarity among party members to win more voices in the government.
He accused the ruling CPP of allegedly forcing farmers to thumbprint a paper or otherwise take an oath promising to vote for CPP.
“The communist group is using bad tactics to threaten people to vote for their party,” Sam Rainsy told about 200 supporters in a party gathering held in Battambang town.
He also lambasted Funcinpec and its leaders for their ignorance of the peoples’ problems. “Some politicians and parties like Funcinpec broke their promises made during the last election,” he said. “After getting power, they have forgotten.”
In another speech in Poipet where he visited landless families, the opposition leader said that “voting for Funcinpec is like voting for nothing, because they took your votes to be sold to the CPP. So if you like the CPP, the communists, you should vote for them, but not Funcinpec again.”
Such remarks are an attempt by Sam Rainsy to gain more Funcinpec votes in the upcoming elections. He believes tens of thousands of Funcinpec supporters are dissatisfied with the royalist party.
Meng Sakhan disputed Sam Rainsy’s claims, saying Funcinpec made the right decision to bring hostilities to an end by joining the CPP in a coalition government.
“If we did not do the national reconciliation with the CPP, our people would be in big trouble,” he said.