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On the river with Rainsy in search for votes

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ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Rainsy meets the people of Kratie.

KRATIE AND KAMPONG CHAM - Without media access or helicopters to jet around the country, Sam Rainsy has to get creative to get his message out if he is to have a chance in any elections he takes part in.

"Ideas have legs. In remote areas, people hear them," Rainsy explained." You have to speak convincingly. We are using word of mouth and small leaflets."

Ideas aren't the only things with legs. During the course of his provincial trips, Rainsy and his team get around. The wake up call is at 6am, when his bodyguards start stirring on the neighboring floor mats in their underwear.

By 6:30 the day has begun and a Suzuki Samurai, which had been stored in the hull of the wooden campaign boat, is parked in front of the house of a Sam Rainsy party supporter for Rainsy, Saumura, a journalist and the bodyguard who wraps his legs around the spare tire on the back of the car.

"I tell people it is a pity we did not make things happen last time. I am not Funcinpec...

"When I was in the government, I tried to keep Funcinpec's promises, that is why I was thrown out," Rainsy says of his campaign stump speech in Kratie - Funcinpec territory in the 1993 elections.

"I am a victim of Funcinpec. The people are a victim of Funcinpec. Let's not let it happen again."

Rainsy said he tailors his speeches to each province, highlighting large-scale deforestation in Kratie and Kampong Cham and taking journalists for a photo shoot on what appeared to be an entire forest of cut trees on the edge of Chhlong, before convincing a guard at the Malaysian Samling logging company to open the gates for photographers.

"I focus on deforestation in Kratie. Farmers say it is the fourth year in a row they suffer from drought and flooding in the same year," he said.

"My main theme is corruption and social justice. This is the land of corruption, therefore it is the land of injustice.

"Democracy is a big word. It means decisions will no longer be made on the basis of money or power. There will be justice. [I say] all of us know deep in our heart what is right. Do you want to live in that society?"

His message resonates at the first river village of Preak Po, where children charge the arriving boat to offer up their water bottles and bags of hard-boiled eggs.

An appreciative line of villagers wait with broad smiles and gestures of respect as he mountains the path to the central market.

The crowd quickly grows to 100, with widows, children following Rainsy as he strides through town handing out leaflets and talking to vendors.

"I like him. I came because I want to meet him. Then I will know [who to vote for]," said a 72-year-old man named Liep.

"Almost 100 percent like him here. He raised civil servant salaries," said teacher and former soldier In Bunthan, 32.

As Rainsy walked around the outside of the market, a desperate ice cream vendor complained that he could not feed his five kids because no one buys his ice cream bars.

Rainsy asked the price of a bar - a few hundred riel - and gave the word for his staff to buy all of the ice cream. Free ice cream! Children stormed the shell-shocked vendor, thrusting their arms into his cooler and pulling out ice cream in the burgeoning late morning heat.

"He helped protect the poor from the threat of the rich men. Especially the worker," one devoted Rainsy supporter said on condition of anonymity.

"I heard on the radio, from the newspaper, the election will not be safe. But I will still vote for the one I love, the one who is true to the nation. If leaders just support their family or party, I will not vote for them."

"Some people here will vote [CPP]. Most people will vote for Euv (Rainsy)," he said.

Claims of intimidation

In Kampong Cham's village of Kroch Chhmar, a serious allegation of intimidation was reported.

Tit Lonh, 42, told Sam Rainsy that his family and seven others in the area had been isolated from other villagers for days for not acceding to a nation-wide CPP thumbprint-recruitment drive.

"I am so scared of living in my village," he then told a UN monitor who Rainsy referred him to. Lonh said he and another seven families who refused to give thumb prints.

"They called us the stubborn-headed people," he said.

The UN official told Lonh he should not hesitate to give the thumb print if he feels threatened, and assured him that the thumb print does not mean Lonh must vote for the CPP.

"If you see your life is in danger go ahead and do it [give the thumbprint]," the observer explained on the banks of the Mekong.

"It does not mean you are obligated... if you want to stay alive, you are better off doing that than being a strong dead man."

In the Muslim village of Pong Ro-Charm in Kratie, Rainsy also found resonance in accessibility as people expressed amazement that a politician not only came to see them, but that he walked down main street "dressed like a normal man".

Still, one Cham man in the village said he would never vote for anyone other than Hun Sen, who saved him from certain death and who has built many things throughout the country since then.

"I was liberated from the killing fields by him," said Toh Lah, 38. "And since then, Samdech Ti Pi (Hun Sen) has always been with the poor people, he helped the poor."

He said he had no idea who will win the election but he explained simple people often get hurt when they get mixed up with dangerous political games.

"I don't know who is good and who is bad, but he whose rice I eat, I serve him, " he said, using a Chinese proverb.

At Tlok Chrov village in Kampong Cham province, locals ran through the market after Rainsy, asking "Is it him, is it him?"

But others said they were afraid to be around Rainsy because they expected problems with the CPP as a result, and many rushed after him for a look before departing. For many it was the first time they saw the man they said they knew from radio broadcasts between 1993 and 1995 or from newspaper photographs.

"Which one is Sam Rainsy?" an old woman asked another.

"The man who wears the white shirt with eye-glasses," a young man told the old woman.

"He looks young," the woman said with a bright smile.

As Sam Rainsy walked toward a nearby pagoda, the gathering crowd followed him, while others disappeared into side streets.

"They are not afraid to go [with him]. I am afraid so I will stay at home," said one old woman as she withdrew from the crowd.

At an old lady's coffee shop people collected and conversed about Rainsy, unaware of the presence of a journalist.

"I did not know he was coming!" a woman said, "he is so brave."

Another chimed in to say: "Sam Rainsy is a good man. He is a real nationalist, but Ta Run [Col Mao Pirun, the CPP commander of Kampong Cham provincial army] has also done good things for people here."

Freedom of speech on the campaign trail
Out on the campaign trail, it appears an active populist campaigner can take his or her message to the people with basic protections from local military authorities, if the recent trip is any measure.

During the three-day campaign-like swing, Rainsy drew crowds ranging from a few hundred in port villages along the Mekong to 1,500 in Kratie town where a live band played Santana covers.

While his supporters and other onlookers said they were concerned about their safety, they were willing to brave the perceived dangers in larger numbers than expected.

One man in Kroch Chhmar said that while many people he knew left early they were so afraid, he decided to stay, albeit far from the actual rally. "There are enough people so I am not scared," he said of the responsive 400-plus crowd. "I am just back here in the shade."

While he said that others left out of fear, the sentiment that there is safety in numbers was one expressed by many.

The man, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the fingerprinting campaign had swept through Kratie, like other regions, but that in Kratie, known Funcinpec members were not approached.

Officials, meanwhile, were surprisingly tolerant of Rainsy's strident attacks on the government and CPP corruption. In the speech in Kratie town, Rainsy lampooned the CPP for being installed by "Vietnamese Communists" as a local CPP official laughed off the allegations on stage.

In his speeches in Kampong Cham province, where Hun Sen is a representative, Rainsy laid into the Second Prime Minister. "I said Hun Sen was your representative in 1993 and he lost. He has abandoned you [to run in Kandal]. He doesn't dare come back.

"Me, I have come to replace him," Rainsy said.

Several people on the outskirts of the rallies said that rather than worrying about him being too critical, said they were glad to hear such criticism.

But there were dissenting voices, such as a CPP-aligned party official in Kratie town who was furious that Rainsy held a 1,500-strong rally to open a party office next door to the glum Khmer Citizens' Party office in Kratie town and that Rainsy's caravan had parked all their cars in front of his house.

"Before it was quiet, now there is so much noise," said Ya Yit, the KCP's Kratie chief.

Dressed only in a krama hiked up to his thigh, the tattooed man, who is the KCP's number two candidate in the province, said: "The important thing is to be allied with [CPP], not to be the slave of Hun Sen, but to have the freedom to do politics."

Protection for the Kratie opening was provided by four local military police who were buoyed by a handful of soldiers, some of whom seemed to respond unwillingly to Rainsy's pledge to raise the salaries of soldiers and civil servants.

The chief of the O'Russei police who were charged with protecting Rainsy, however, demonstrated the shortcomings of the National Electoral Commissions information campaign to educate people about their rights to vote.

"I have no idea about politics here... police do not have right to vote," said Kang Sokeng.

Told about the comments after the speech, Rainsy said: "The National Electoral Commission needs to do more to make sure military people know they can vote."

Among those who said they expect to vote, most were unabashedly pro-Rainsy, including those on the perimeter of his speeches, who kept at a distance, but within earshot of his allegations of CPP corruption and intimidation, and Funcinpec incompetence and broken promises.

Ung Sim, 75, living in Chhlong district said he is scared he will be threatened if he votes with his heart in the up coming election.

"I am not afraid but I am concerned," he said with a nervous smile.

While he recognized some of the positive activities Hun Sen has been engaged in, he said he will not vote for the current leadership which has not brought prosperity to society and which continues to order Khmer to fight Khmer.

"Samdech Hun Sen has built a lot of construction. He is good though," he said. "But I want to change the pilot to see if the new pilot might be better than the old one.

One hard-core Funcinpec supporter in Chhlong warned of danger in town if the Rainsy campaign stayed too long.

"He is so brave, he is not concerned with his own security and he has come without any long or short guns," Dat Sroeun, 31, said quietly some 20 meters from the house where Rainy was staying with an influential local. " I think he would be better off if he left soon."

Sroeun, a former interior policeman from Funcinpec who quit his job two years ago because he didn't like the government, warned that many bad things continue to happen in the country, pointing to corruption, political disputes, and the war which continues even after a government was created by the 1993 elections.

While he said he is upset with Funcinpec and "all its problems", he said he still believed in it.

"I realized that Funcinpec is very weak because of the internal disputes but I still trust and want to be with my party."

He said that Funcinpec went underground following the blow it received during the coup, but he was convinced the party's period in hiding was used to prepare it for the coming election. "The cat fish hid in the mud to sharpen its tusks for the attack," he said referring to Ranariddh's return to Cambodia.

Despite his personal affinity for the Prince, he said that Rainsy will carry the area on election day. "No one except him [Sam Rainsy]."

In village after village, Rainsy held court like some electoral pied piper, walking through villages and gathering ever-growing crowds.

He and Saumura are a flurry of activity. Here he is with glasses askew and mud on his pants in a pagoda. There he is, shoeless, offering a speech. The boat breaks down, pull over to the next port and go out in the Suzuki Samirai; there is no missing a planned engagement. The pace is relentless.

Lunch on the campaign trail is rice with chunks of chicken in Styrofoam containers. Rainsy naps out on the floor of the boat, and Saumura puts her feet up on the table. Bodyguards, on the roof of the boat, roast in the afternoon sun.

Sleep never lasts more than a few minutes or hours, between ports where a cluster of SRP supporters greet the arrival warmly.

One journalist covering the trip asked in all seriousness if "Rainsy has special food" to permit him to keep up such a pace.

Rainsy makes his way through Cambodia and offes his alternative versions of Cambodia's recent past and options for its future.

He sees the reactions he gets and feels that if the vote is fair, he will surprise not only the CPP, who is almost everywhere, but also those in Funcinpec who think they are part of the "silent majority".

"I push people to think for themselves. It is different from the CPP. Let people think for themselves and decide."

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