sihanoukville – In a small town like Sihanoukville, it’s hard for candidates to avoid each other.
At breakfast Friday, no sooner had Minister of Industry Pou Sothirak—who won the seat for Funcinpec in 1993 and is now a Reastr Niyum candidate––sat down with his entourage than in strolls Funcinpec candidate Sisowath Phandaravong with supporters.
Smiles, greetings and lots of joking about who will spoil whose appetite—after all, these people were on the same side in 1993. Their friendships go way back.
And that was just breakfast. The night before, as Pou Sothirak’s group sat down to eat at an oceanside restaurant, CPP candidate Ith Sam Heng walked past with a group of supporters. Nervous waiters ushered the CPP group past the tables while polite greetings were exchanged.
“We see each other all the time,” said Pou Sothirak. “I am friendly with them, I wish them well. Our party is dedicated to the principle that Cambodians should get along with Cambodians.”
Nady Tan, secretary-general of the Council of Ministers and candidate for Reastr Niyum in Kompong Cham, joined Pou Sothirak for the last days of the campaign. On the highway, he waved when he passed a truck carrying supporters of an opposing party.
He did not, however, manage a wave when the motorcade of Prince Norodom Ranariddh swept by. Last election, he was a key part of the prince’s campaign team; now he is his opponent.
But it is not like in 1993, said Nady Tan: “Things were so dangerous then, sometimes we would have to change hotels three times in one night because we were being threatened.” Now greetings may be more or less genial, but they are exchanged.
Only in the villages can a candidate expect to receive the undivided attention of his constituents. In remote Koh Kchang village, close by the ocean, where most inhabitants live off fishing, the turnout is overwhelming.
On Thursday, Pou Sothirak dedicated a school building and ceremonially handed over the keys to the schoolmaster amid cheers. “Before, they had to teach under the trees,” said Pou Sothirak. “The people in this village are very poor.” The visitors handed out stacks of school notebooks, kilos of rice and assorted goodies.
Pou Sothirak, a US-educated 41-year-old, worked as a Boeing engineer before returning to Cambodia and being elected to represent Sihanoukville as a Funcinpec member.
Back in Sihanoukville, he took the microphone and talked about economic development in Cambodia and Sihanoukville. The most important thing is peace and security, he said. Then the civil service must be reformed so bureaucrats are neutral. And Cambodia’s vast supply of illegal weapons must be controlled.
As his campaign reached a crescendo Friday morning, Pou Sothirak addressed a meeting in the town center before heading out with a cavalcade of 500 motorcycles charged with the task of circling the town twice, waving flags and, if possible, avoiding collisions with other motorcades doing similar things.