NEAK LOEUNG Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has appeared to have recovered from a sudden illness that prevented him from attending the water festival in Phnom Penh last week.
On Friday, the day after the ancient and official festival was over in the capital, he managed to gather his strength and attend an alternative boat race put on especially for him and his party's hierachy. His vigor restored, he used the occasion to take a swipe at the opposition.
He compared his boat races to the July election, saying there wasn't much difference between the two events.
He said the fastest boat is number one, the next fastest second, etc. just like the election.
And he added that politicians who complained afterwards that they did not know the rules were like boat racers who complained they did not realize that the fastest boats would win. Both, he said, were "cowards".
He then called on the politicians who went overseas to come back home.
"If they do not come back to the country we will continue to look after the country ourselves," he said.
Hun Sen went on to say that there was no problem with security for the opposition politicians and they could return safely. However, he added, that if they did not return it would not be "fatal" for the country.
It was unclear how far Hun Sen wanted to pursue the analogy. The only participants in his races were boats supported by himself and other senior CPP, military and police officials, the most notable exceptions being party president Chea Sim, and honorary president Heng Samrin. Interior Minister Sar Kheng did have a boat in the race but he did not attend.
No one was told on the day which was actually the fastest boat, instead Hun Sen declared everyone a winner and rewarded them with approximately 3 million riel and 25 cartons of cigarettes.
Yem Oudom, chief of technical committee said that it was Hun Sen's idea to give each boat first prize.
Notable among sponsors of the 36 boats were Hun Sen; Sok An, a member of the council of ministers; Hun Sen's brother Hun Neng, governor of Kampong Cham province; Hok Lundy, chief of general direction of the National Police; So Perin, Takeo governor; Tea Banh, Minister of Defense; and Ke Kim Yan, Chief of General staff of RACF.
Hok Lundy's boat from Svay Rieng province received an anonymous donation of more than $10,000, which he in turn donated to the Cambodian Red Cross. A further 9 million riel received was used to pay for their boat racing costs.
Bun Runy, Hun Sen's wife and the chief of the Cambodia Red Cross, said that all the money would be used to buy food for poor people in Svay Rieng province.
The regatta itself was festive but somewhat more modest than the more traditional one presided over by the King in Phnom Penh. However locals had to put up with a measure of inconvenience, particularly those waiting for the ferry to cross the river were long delays due to one of the ferries having been commandeered to serve as a floating viewing platform for the CPP VIPs.
Other people had to make do with vantage points on the river bank or bamboo rafts, and floating log jams courtesy of local sawmills.
Security was tight for the event and numerous armed soldiers were stationed near the viewing platform.
One keen observer of Hun Sen's regatta was Voeun, who had also been in the official Phnom Penh race.
He said he thought that the boat crews in these races were very lucky because they had received lots of financial support.
"Some boats received the gift of $1000 and other things like rice, clothes and cigarettes.
"We have only the rice from the pagoda that was given by the villagers which they are short of," he said.
Meanwhile the official races during the water festival were not without controversy.
Some racers were unhappy that some boats were given extra races and allowed to change lanes.
One of them, named Oudom, said that on the last day of racing some of the boat racers got drunk and surrounded him, waving oars, and started to blame him that they did not let them get any presents from the King.
"We could not give them all [the necessary] time to come up to receive the gifts from the King because there were too many of them and so they got angry with us," he said.
The official water festival races were also affected by politics and, in one case, very directly.
The National Assembly's boat, Srey Sar Sa Ath (the white skinned beautiful woman) was knocked out of the competition on the second day result the boat crew blames on the lack of support from the National Assembly this year because no government had been yet formed.
Eng Sok, a member of the village boat committee, said that while the National Assembly managed to donate $300 and 600 kg of rice, it was not enough to hold onto experienced members of their crew who were enticed away to boats sponsored by wealthier patrons.