kompong cham town – On Tuesday, CPP parliamentarian candidate Yos Son took a speedboat 15 minutes up the Mekong River from this provincial capital to Koh Samrong.
A speech at a secondary school attracted only 100 people—residents said they were too busy farming—but he was the first candidate so far to campaign on this remote island of 3,737 registered voters.
The campaign appearance reflected the kind of grassroots effort the ruling party has been conducting here in populous Kompong Cham, where 18 National Assembly seats are at stake—the most of any province in the country.
While opposition parties have been driving four-wheeled vehicles up and down provincial roads with loudspeakers blaring, CPP candidates have been meeting members in commune pagodas and schools to explain party policy and how to vote.
“We’re not using trucks or loudspeakers,” said Tong Chhay Lip, CPP party chief for Kompong Cham province. “People are too busy during the rainy season, planting rice. So we decide not to collect people for a rally, we go to meet people in the village.”
This kind of quiet campaigning, however, hasn’t been without controversy.
Opposition parties in Kompong Cham charge that their candidates don’t have the same access to village meetings that the CPP does, and that CPP intimidates voters by noting who attends opposition rallies.
They also point to a visible sign of CPP favoritism: purple party banners that stretch across the roads here, especially in the provincial capital. The opposition doesn’t enjoy such a high-profile presence, although signboards and posters tacked to buildings and trees are in clear abundance.
In interviews at four different locations in the province Monday and Tuesday, some residents confirmed feeling too intimidated to publicly show support for the opposition.
“I don’t feel I can express myself freely,” said 32-year-old Oun Sam, a motorcycle taxi driver in a village across the river from Kompong Cham town. There are also lingering doubts about ballot secrecy.
But even among those who feel intimidated, almost all said they are determined to vote according to their heart. This seems to confirm a recent survey by the Center for Advanced Study.
“I understand I have the freedom to decide to vote for anyone I like,” said 48-year-old Gnek Kol, as he was hunched over whittling bamboo for a fish trap.
In 1993, Funcinpec won 10 seats here, the CPP six, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party one and Molinaka one. Most interviewed didn’t want to disclose their party preference.
For its part, the provincial election commission denies any campaign controversies.
“During the campaign, there have been no incidents,” said Yin Bunthith, commission chairman. “It’s going smoothly, there are no serious problems…the leaders come here and respect the rules.”
It is true that the most major incident reported so far is the unsolved murder of a Sam Rainsy activist, who was found dead in a rubber plantation in June. Human rights workers suspect the killing was politically motivated.
There was a small incident Monday. Funcinpec officials reported a boat containing several party officials was followed by the military police on the Mekong River. UN officials looked into the incident later that day.
Yin Bunthith said a reason for the relative calm in Kompong Cham province is that party representatives meet every Friday at the election commission office to resolve problems.
But a Sam Rainsy Party official has another perspective.
“During the [Friday] meeting, only the Rainsy party raises problems, the other parties keep quiet,” said You Kosal, chief administrator for Rainsy’s provincial campaign. “The PEC has asked us not to talk about the bad things about the country” because such problems could be publicized internationally.
You Kosal said the Sam Rainsy Party, which has a convoy of four vehicles here, only goes to a couple of locations in each district for safety reasons. Voters, he said, are intimidated from going to rallies because of the presence of local police who say they are providing “protection.”
“The CPP already has the power, they can use village chiefs to collect people and deliver the message,” You Kosal said. “The Rainsy Party has no power to collect people like that. A lot of people like us, and decide to take a leaflet, but they don’t want to be public” about it.
Hak Chhay Heng, a district chief for Funcinpec in Kompong Cham province, articulated a similar sentiment. He said local authorities pretend they aren’t watching, but note who is attending opposition party rallies.
“So people are scared, they do not express” their opinion, Hak Chhay Heng said.
One taxi driver said the CPP doesn’t recognize the power of suppression. “When they do something bad, they don’t think people will understand. They look down on people. I am grateful for them [ousting] the Khmer Rouge, but we now must think of the future and reform.”
But others scoffed at the notion of suppression.
Chou Lim Eng, who runs a restaurant along the river in Kang Meas district, said she has observed no such intimidation as campaign trucks have clattered through the district town. “I don’t want to make any political party look bad or good, but there is no suppression,” she said.
As she was talking, a Reastr Niyum campaign truck stopped for about five minutes, and a couple of people took leaflets. There was a man wearing a CPP T-shirt in the area, but no obvious local authority.
Local authorities deny intimidation exists.
At Koh Samrong village, Funcinpec is the only other party besides the CPP that has an office.
But Ouk Kimson, commune police chief, said eight or nine parties have registered to campaign and will be given equal treatment. “Every party can come and hold the election campaign freely,” he said.
The beefy police chief in this village of ox carts, dirt roads and thatched houses, said he provided security for the CPP meeting as required by electoral rules.
Villager Vorn Srei said that although the CPP frequently has meetings at the pagoda and has provided gifts, there is no pressure to go. “They just ask people to go to the pagoda and people can freely decide to go or not.” Like most residents, she opted not to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
CPP officials say they have been careful to promote an atmosphere for free and fair polls.
“There’s no evidence to say [political intimidation exists]. If you’re not sure about that, speak directly to the people,” said Tong Chhay Lip, the provincial party chief. “We have been patient not to respond to what the CPP has been criticized for. The CPP has strictly educated its members not to commit any wrongdoing.”
Opposition officials acknowledge they don’t have enough firm evidence to file formal complaints about most incidents reported by party supporters.
Tong Chhay Lip noted that the party got permission from local authorities to hang its street banners, but didn’t know if opposition parties had tried the same.
Mok Lim Orn, deputy party chief in Kang Meas district, 20 km from Kompong Cham town, stressed CPP campaign activities have been limited to meetings to tell people how to vote correctly and about party policy.
He noted that at one rally, four Sam Rainsy Party members were detained for breaking campaign regulations by impersonating soldiers. Mok Lim Orn wouldn’t go as far to claim that the Sam Rainsy Party had set up the situation to make the CPP look bad, but “it was interesting that soldiers joined the rally of Rainsy.”
The CPP isn’t planning to completely forgo the loudspeakers in Kompong Cham province, however. Officials confirmed a major rally is scheduled for July 23.
On Tuesday, workers in Kang Meas district were busy painting banners for that rally. In that district alone, the rally will consist of two caravans of 50 vehicles.
“We cannot predict whether the CPP will win or lose, because the election will be held secretly,” Tong Chhay Lip said. “The CPP is the only party that liberated the people from the Khmer Rouge. It builds a lot of schools, dams, bridges, so people can see the achievement. This is the special point of the CPP, but it’s up to the
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