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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hun Sen dwells in development as CPP campaigns

Hun Sen dwells in development as CPP campaigns

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PEASANT ORIGINS

Quite unlike Funcinpec's royal appeal, Hun Sen relies on his familiarity

with provincial life and the many development projects that have been

set up around the nation in his name.

HUN SEN has made his election intentions clear. He has repeatedly stated that he

will not campaign for the CPP, preferring instead to ensure that the political environment

is free and fair.

On July 10, however, the Second Prime Minister and his entourage arrived at a half-finished

irrigation canal in Sa'ang district of Kandal province by swooping down on the assembled

crowd in two government helicopters.

Photojournalists and well-wishers greeted Hun Sen underneath the swirling blades

of the chopper and followed him down to the bottom of the canal where hundreds of

men and women in CPP T-shirts were digging furiously.

Hun Sen conversed casually with the laborers, grabbed a hoe and dug up a few loads

of dirt for the photographers. Walking away from the ditch, he playfully grabbed

a small child and hoisted her into his arms. As he made his way to a crowd of at

least 1,500 assembled before a palm-thatched shelter rigged with loudspeakers, Hun

Sen responded in English to the questions of a few foreign reporters.

"No campaigning!" he declared. "This is the Hun Sen Kraingyov Development

Center. I have been here 40 or 50 times before."

While the Second Prime Minister has often taken trips into the provinces to give

speeches at newly built schools and development projects, this visit was a little

different. The crowd gathered at Sa'ang were solid CPP supporters and Hun Sen is

an MP candidate for Kandal. Accompanying him were fellow CPP candidate Chea Sok and

Khun Kim, the fiercely loyal CPP deputy governor of Kandal.

This visit could be seen as a cynical campaign ploy to gain television exposure.

But it is apparently not. Hun Sen's non-campaign has not gained coverage on state-run

or CPP-affiliated electronic media.

The non-campaign strategy is a mystery. Why is the CPP's star speaker not drumming

up support for the party?

Compared to the stiff and dry speeches of CPP President Chea Sim and CPP Honorary

President Heng Samrin, Hun Sen is an animated and jovial orator. He often cracks

jokes and even reads poetry that displays a deep understanding of the lives of rural

Cambodians.

Hun Sen's public speaking style also relies heavily on interaction with his audience.

In Sa'ang, the Second Prime Minister preferred to respond to questions posed to him

from the crowd, mostly about development.

This low key event at Sa'ang was a typical non-campaign swing. The CPP appears to

be running in place. Why?

Two top CPP officials shared their thoughts on their party's performance and prospects.

"We're using a different strategy from 1993," said Svay Sitha, a government

spokesman and a CPP candidate in Kampong Speu. "In 1998, we're keeping a low

profile. We are concentrating on organization before the election. We have a half

million CPP propagandists to bring the message of our political platform to the people.

We give them a guide to voting. Our focus is on education."

Seated in his office at CPP headquarters, Svay Sitha was relaxed, affable, quick

to laughter, and chainsmoking 555s. He invited a reporter to light up, saying, "Welcome

to the Killing Fields."

"We do have convoys and rallies in all the provinces," he continued. "But

we don't waste time criticizing others."

He complained that other parties violated the NEC election code: Funcinpec by identifying

themselves with the King, who is supposed to be above politics, and Sam Rainsy by

using abusive language.

"Sam Rainsy curses us, calls us communist puppets. He refers to Hun Sen as a-Hun

Sen (contemptible Hun Sen).

"We tell our people to keep a low profile, to be patient and not to react to

provocation; if they curse you, just walk away. If you react, you fall into their

trap. They will claim intimidation and threat of violence. The best thing to do is

to exercise maximum self-restraint.

"We are pleased with the security situation, better than in 1993. A Western

analyst said to me: 'This is the calm before the storm.' I told him: 'Which do you

prefer, the calm or the storm?'"

The CPP seems to be standing pat. Why do you assume people will vote for you?

"Three reasons. First, the CPP gave the right to life to the Khmer people in

the liberation of 1979. People regard 7 January 1979 as their second birthdate. Second,

until now no political party in Cambodia - or even the world - can claim to have

built more schools than the CPP. Anyone can promise things, but we are the ones who

did it: wells, dams, health clinics, secondary roads.

"And thirdly, human rights. People have benefited from CPP work to provide the

five basic needs, especially to the rural poor: food, shelter, water, health care,

education. Other so-called human rights protectors confine their protection to the

Cambodiana Hotel. How you can talk of the human rights of a child, if he doesn't

have a school?"

What about the question of media access for the campaign?

"Equal time on television - five minutes a day - is NEC policy. We have three

million CPP members but only ask for equal access according to international standards.

Bangkok or the US do not require parties to possess radio or TV stations."

The Americans have pulled away from a joint EU declaration on the election.

"I am not surprised. The American position has always been different from other

countries. Our position is that we have conformed to international standards, a clear-cut

definition of free and fair and just elections: freedom to register, freedom to vote."

Assessing the current election, Svey Sitha commented: "We are weak in Phnom

Penh. We hope to get four out of 12 seats. Our great advantage is in the rural areas,

especially the remote ones. We have a good structure so that messages from the top

are quickly conveyed to the local levels. Other parties do not have the human resources."

On July 14, Svay Sitha was scheduled to address an informal meeting of American senators

in Washington, DC. "My mission is to tell them what the real situation is here,"

he said.

On July 11, the day after Svay Sitha's interview, the CPP profile in Phnom Penh was

anything but low. Early Saturday morning 2,500 CPP supporters, dressed in white CPP

T-shirts and caps and waving a sea of blue CPP banners, blasted through the streets

of the capital in a fleet of 20 trucks and 250 motorcycles before settling at Olympic

Stadium. A traditional Khmer band pounded drums and cymbals.

"We are from the January 7 precinct," said Ngim Ly, a local CPP leader.

"The CPP is staging rallies at seven precincts today. Each precinct was given

the authority to plan its own rallies."

Finance Minister Keat Chhon, a CPP candidate in the capital, was on hand to greet

the crowd. The diminutive 68-year-old mounted a pickup truck to deliver a surprisingly

feisty speech:

"The CPP belongs to the people, was founded by the people and lives with the

people in all circumstances! The CPP has never left the people alone... The party

has given three gifts to the people. One: life, the elimination of the genocidal

regime. Two: peace and national reconciliation. Three: development.

"We have developed this country with our bare hands. We should congratulate

this progress. We have the experts. After 20 years, we have experienced officials

in every field. So vote for the CPP, the party of experience!"

After the rally, Keat Chhon invited the Post to his office. He addressed a campaign

issue about the decline of the economy since last July, admitting that many investors

have a wait-and-see attitude until the elections.

"But economic productivity is quite normal," he maintained. "For the

first half of 1998, we have had $490 million in investment, the same rate as in 1997.

But our Asian partners were hit by a financial cataclysm - I don't call it a crisis

- that affected Korea, Thailand, Japan, even the US West Coast.

"The effect on Cambodia is that imports are hard to get: no one has credit from

suppliers, everyone wants cash. Our volume of imported goods is down, so is customs

revenue."

Will the economic climate be better after the elections?

"Yes. We are transparent, we give data, nothing to hide. The climate will be

better because, one, political stability and, two, physical security... We want to

prevent Phnom Penh from becoming like New York or Los Angeles.

"Another issue is business security. The basic legal and institutional instruments

are already in place: a complete code of commerce, laws on capital markets and bankruptcy,

a taxation code... The problem now is implementation, enforcement, a culture of public

service."

Keat Chhon explained that he has a young team of technocrats, educated abroad, who

are in charge of economic policy planning. "I have people here from previous

administrations," he added. "They are not here because of party loyalty.

This administration is neutral, not political."

Keat Chhon smiled, unpinned his gold CPP badge and laid it on a coffee table. "I

do it [campaign] because that is the nature of my job. But today is my day off, Saturday."

He turned then to the cutoff of IMF loans and the lowering of ODA assistance.

"First we must clean our own house: one, arms and illegal log smuggling; two,

administrative reform and military demobilization; three, fiscal and budgetary discipline:

transparency in revenue and expenditure. We're still in discussions with the IMF."

Are you hopeful about the future of the Cambodian economy?

"Yes. If the future government is CPP or not CPP, the regulations that we wrote

for a three-year national development program cannot be rolled back. We must have

continuity, vision, a strategy... Hun Sen has a good understanding, but internal

debates go on, that's the rule of the game, democracy...

"The CPP team is not perfect but we must show solidarity. In a united party,

you have one voice. There are differences in the party but we don't split up. If

you are in the minority, you follow the majority, but you struggle again in the future...

"I believe things will improve in time."

Turning to his own future, Keat Chhon is less sanguine.

"You can't predict an electoral contest. The poll is secret and people decide

by their conscience. In Phnom Penh, I am contesting the January 7 precinct. I have

difficulties here. Civil servants are not happy with their wages, traders not happy

with their profits and taxes. They don't know whether I'm their friend or their enemy.

"I'm working not for one constituency but for the whole economy. I hope people

understand that."

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