koh chum commune, Pursat province – Soeng Sem lays on a small wooden bed in the corner of a hot hospital room. Most of the patients around him anxiously wait until they can return to their homes. But for this 65-year-old Funcinpec commune candidate, the thought of returning home brings uncertainty and fear.
He used to think his house was safe. But last week two men he says he had never met came to his door, asked him for advice about their lost ox, requested a glass of water then shot him with an assault rifle.
“I am afraid to return to my home but it seems like I do not have a choice, I have nowhere else to go,” said Soeng Sem, who was shot once in the shoulder.
Soeng Sem’s alleged assailants, arrested last week, say the dispute was over a personal grievance. But Soeng Sem insists the attack was politically motivated, and that his life is still in danger.
Local authorities have not determined whether the shooting was political, but an undercurrent of anxiety now permeates the normally quiet life here.
Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party officials gathered apprehensively with commune candidates in small stilt houses in central Pursat to talk about the upcoming commune elections and the threat of increasing violence.
Nguon Muang is a Funcinpec candidate in Snam Preah commune, which borders Soeng Sem’s. Whether a candidate is likely to be a victim of violence depends on their relationship with the commune chief, he said.
“I have a good relationship with the commune chief,” he said. “He never says a bad word to me about supporting a political party besides the CPP because it is my right to choose a leader.”
A senior Funcinpec official agreed that a commune chief afraid of losing his job might resort to violence, and the first victims would be those with whom he doesn’t have a good relationship.
“Those commune chiefs who are not happy and thinking about what their future would be like if they lost their position will threaten, attack, or kill their rivals before this can happen,” he said.
Tep Thida, 44, a mother of five, is a candidate for the Sam Rainsy Party in Svay Att commune. She said she worries about the intimidation because she is popular in her village and is supported by her neighbors.
“I am always careful when I go far away from home, I always take one of my sons to accompany me,” she said.
Human rights workers say political intimidation is likely to continue in Pursat province as the commune elections approach. One rights worker said the potential of political violence in the months preceding the commune elections is higher than it was during the 1993 and 1998 national elections because there are more personal grievances at the grassroots level.
“During the previous elections, there was not much intimidation in Pursat province but now I am very concerned about the upcoming commune elections because it has happened repeatedly in the last few months after a polling date was set up,” said the worker, who asked for anonymity.
Chea Saroeun, a Sam Rainsy Party candidate, agrees.
He and his wife were beaten by a soldier June 21 as they rode a bicycle in Phteah Prey commune. The soldier, a former student of Chea Saroeun, threatened to kill Chea Saroeun’s family if he complained about the attack. “Now all my children are scared of him. They dare not stay home at night, so they sleep at the neighbors,” he said.
Kong Bin, the chief prosecutor of Pursat’s provincial court, said the attacker, Mam Saroeun, appeared in court and confessed to the beatings—claiming he was very drunk at the time and attacked the couple because of a dispute over traffic. He denied it was politically motivated.
Chea Saroeun said he had never received threats until after people found out he was pro-opposition.
“I think this dispute is not personal. The tension did not start until I joined the Sam Rainsy Party,” he said from his hospital bed a few doors down from Soeng Sem.
Both men have sent their families to live with relatives out of fear for their safety.
Soeng Sem has little money and is shaken by the threat to his life, but says he will continue to represent Funcinpec in the upcoming commune elections.
“I will stand for the King until I die,” he said.