‘I live today like a crab in its hole, because the neighbours discriminate against me, the authorities suppress me — and wherever I go, they follow me every step.”
As Meas Srey spoke, as if on cue, a pair of police officers drove by and began snapping photos of her talking to a reporter. After their arrest in December 2009, Srey and Prom Chea have not had an easy go of it. They spent nearly 10 months in prison on convictions of destroying public property and racial incitement for helping opposition leader Sam Rainsy pull out a border post in October of that year.
The high-profile stunt netted Rainsy two years in prison, but he was sentenced in absentia after he fled the charges. This pair was not so lucky.
When Rainsy and Svay Rieng residents pulled up six border posts they claimed had been illegally planted by Vietnamese authorities intent on encroaching on villagers’ land, they set into motion an implausible series of events.
Rainsy was eventually sentenced to 12 years (later reduced to 11) in absentia for charges related to the event.
He refused to return until the charges were dropped — a move that garnered him high-level international support without severely affecting his eponymous party — and helped broker a promising merger with the Human Rights Party. Eventually, amid mounting international pressure and growing calls from within Cambodia, the government caved and granted Rainsy a Royal pardon just two weeks before the election.
Inexorably tied, Chea and Srey have faced a lengthy battle since joining Rainsy in his October 2009 protest.
“I just protected my farmland and my territorial integrity, but they suppress me at every turn,” she said.
Srey’s refusal to back down has put her at odds in this village, where CPP signs and banners fairly blanket the place. All along her street, Srey’s neighbours have hung large CPP flags. Hers is the only one festooned in CNRP logos.
Though Samrong commune chief Sok Saro insisted members of both parties are treated equally, Srey said threats and discrimination in her village are common.
But she has scant intention to back down.
“If I do not take such a stance, the farmland, my rice pot, will be taken by the Vietnamese. So will other people’s farmland,” she said. “I am not grateful for January 7 anymore. It’s been long enough. For four mandates, it’s been like this. It has to be changed.”
Over the course of an hour conversation, police and CPP youth drove by and took photos of Srey. Briefly losing her temper, Srey yelled at a group of CPP youths photographing her from across the street before calming herself.
The Royal pardon granted to Rainsy had been a boon for her, too, suggesting her conviction was equally incorrect.
“The amnesty showed clearly that the court is corrupt and not independent,” she said, before pointing to a recent case as proof positive.
“I was thrown into prison for nine months and 21 days, but [convicted former Bavet town governor] Chhouk Bandith, who was fingered as the shooter of female workers, he wasn’t jailed and the court doled out the lightest of sentences.”
Asked if she felt any resentment that Rainsy served no time, Srey brushed aside such thoughts.
“That was the right choice,” she said, adding that seeking intervention from abroad would have been impossible had Rainsy been imprisoned.
Like Srey, Chea spoke of near-constant surveillance. When he and other opposition members hold meetings, he said, authorities arrive — cameras in tow — and begin recording who is present.
But such difficulties have hardly tamped down his enthusiasm for the party.
“President Sam Rainsy and we just helped protect our territorial integrity,” he said, speaking at his home, just a few streets away. “If we did not do it, all the land would be no more.”
Chea said he hoped Rainsy would return to the area to “see that the demarcation issue which led to our imprisonment has been successful”.
Today, they may have that chance.
After the CPP stages one of its own, Rainsy is set to hold a rally here with an expected 10,000 people in attendance. This CPP stronghold has become an increasing focus of the opposition, who after the last election claimed voter fraud impeded them from winning a seat and called for a recount in that province — a bid rejected by the Constitutional Council.