pailin – Vigorous campaigning pushed tempers to a crescendo here last week, forcing authorities to step in to head off possible violence between the CPP and Sam Rainsy Party supporters, the deputy of the provincial election commission said Friday.
It was the Vietnamese issue that triggered the escalation of campaign tension, said Kuy Nareth, vice-chairman of the commission at Pailin.
“We had a group of Sam Rainsy supporters shouting, ‘Don’t vote for CPP because they’re Vietnamese,’” Kuy Nareth said. “The CPP just said, ‘Wait until your leader comes to town!’”
Concerned that Friday afternoon’s planned Sam Rainsy rally could end in tragedy, the PEC got the two sides together, Kuy Nareth said.
“We got the Sam Rainsy people to promise to stop calling them Vietnamese, and then told the CPP people not to cause any trouble at the rally,” he said.
Sam Rainsy nonetheless railed against alleged CPP links to Vietnam, but incited no unrest.
Residents and Pailin authorities have said that freedom of expression and vigorous campaigning are new to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold, where strict rule squashed dissent for more than 15 years.
Pailin leaders are retaining a strictly neutral stance as seven parties campaign for the one National Assembly seat here.
“We are steady and neutral,” said Second Deputy Governor Ieng Vuth at City Hall on Saturday. “We are not biased with any side. I have asked all the armed forces to stay neutral and to protect all political parties.”
“Security here is probably better than anywhere else in the country,” Ieng Vuth boasted, pointing out that Sam Rainsy’s convoy arrived here Friday accompanied by a military police escort.
Just across the street from City Hall, at Funcinpec headquarters, party workers are less confident about the security and the neutrality of the Pailin authorities.
Ten days ago, reserve Funcinpec candidate and former guerrilla commander Sou Kim fled to Phnom Penh because, he claimed, Pailin governor Y Chhien wanted to arrest him for failing to properly defect to the government. Sou Kim said he was formally chief of staff of front 919 with the Khmer Rouge resistance in Samlot, but said he defected with the Pailin Khmer Rouge in 1996. However, along with other Samlot-based rebels, he chose to support Funcinpec.
“After the coup in Phnom Penh, Funcinpec supporters fled and came and stayed at my house,” he said. “Y Chhien told me not to support them but I ignored him.”
Sou Kim returned to Pailin with the UN one week ago and has campaigned freely, he said.
Complaints like his are being handled by the Pailin PEC, housed in a two-story concrete building with a photocopier, a typewriter, a few election stickers and posters.
No election-related problems were reported during the registration period, but Kuy Nareth said as soon as the campaign got underway old scores were ready to be settled. He mentioned the intense competition between the CPP and Sam Rainsy Party.
Sam Rainsy, apparently eager to cash in on latent nationalist sentiments among a people who up to two years ago were fighting in a resistance movement against the Phnom Penh-based government, fueled divisions Friday.
“People of Pailin, stop eating [the popular Vietnamese dish of] samlor matiou yuon and eat [the traditional Cambodian soup of] samlor kokor,” Sam Rainsy shouted at the Friday rally.
Sam Rainsy Party workers on Friday circulated pamphlets among the crowds, urging onlookers, “If you vote correctly, the yuon will go.”
In his rabble-rousing speech, Sam Rainsy referred constantly to the Vietnamese as yuon, a derogatory term. His rhetoric struck a chord with those who fought a 20-year guerrilla war against what they saw to be a Vietnamese-dominated government.
One supporter, Suos Roeurn, was impressed.
“I was a soldier and I joined the resistance fighting against the yuon invasion,” he said. “So we want to push the Vietnamese out of the country right now.”
Like many Sam Rainsy supporters, Suos Roeurn equates the CPP with a Vietnamese occupying force.
The CPP here certainly don’t see it that way.
“We are angry that some political parties come here and campaign with their evict-the-yuon message,” said Yim Seth, the deputy president of the CPP in Pailin. “They mean the CPP and we are very angry with them.”
Unlike other parts of Cambodia, he hastened to point out, there are no Vietnamese in Pailin. Other party workers nodded and muttered agreements.
“I was a soldier once,” Yim Seth said, ”but the CPP brought freedom and handed power to the [Khmer Rouge] leaders.
“We are Khmer, not Vietnamese.”
Pailin effectively became part of the government in November 1996, following a mass defection by Khmer Rouge troops and families. The former rebels now control the municipal authorities, enjoying a tax-free development zone and profits from lucrative gem and timber trade in this Thai border region.
Some credit Second Prime Minister Hun Sen for getting a favorable deal for the former resistance, so the local party is campaigning on that platform. Yim Seth is confident the people want what their leaders want.
“The people here have lived here twenty years and they believe in the Pailin leaders, they love them, they will go with them,” Yim Seth said.
But as well as trying to maintain political debate at an acceptable level, the PEC is also trying to educate an electorate who have never seen a ballot paper before. Three times a day Pailin radio broadcasts PEC instructions on how to vote, explaining that the ballot is secret and that they need not be afraid.
“People’s understanding here is much less than in Battambang,” said Sieng Sovathana, director of civil education at the NEC and here to oversee election observer training, “Many people didn’t get an education, they were just simple soldiers.”