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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Siem Reap politics: the writing's on the signs

Siem Reap politics: the writing's on the signs

SIEM REAP - In the outskirts of this province, the roadside signs of political parties

tell it all.

In the 65km stretch of Route 6 between Chi Kreng district and the provincial capital,

for example, more than 100 signs for the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) dot the road.

Two placards for the Khmer Citizen's Party of Nguon Soeur, an ally of the CPP, are

the only others. As for the CPP's competitors - Funcinpec, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic

Party (BLDP) and the Khmer Nation Party - there are none.

Amid widespread allegations of CPP violence and intimidation in outlying districts

of Siem Reap, there are no visible signs of an organized political opposition in

a province which was previously considered a non-CPP stronghold.

Siem Reap governor Toan Chay - who still calls himself a Funcinpec member despite

breaking from Prince Norodom Ranariddh in April and now considering forming a new

party - acknowledges the fears of party members.

"They are scared of political incidents, everybody is scared. My deputy governors

and I try to make them feel more secure. If they run away, it gives a bad image to

the province."

Chay said political intimidation swept through Funcinpec and their provincial allies

in the wake of Ranariddh's ouster in July.

The governor, a former military resistance leader of the 1980s who now works with

a provincial structure made up entirely of CPP loyalists, said rumblings of intimidation

continue to come from the army.

"If you do your own [political] activity, it is not against the law, but it

goes against these times," he noted.

The situation appears to be the same in other areas of the province, where many residents

are afraid to be cited by name or photographed for newspapers. Almost without exception,

villagers and townspeople are loathe to discuss politics directly.

"People are afraid that they will talk and then CPP officials will come visit

them in the night," said a 23-year-old resident of Siem Reap town.

Interviews with residents of more than a dozen villages made it clear that organized

political opposition is currently impossible in the wake of the disintegration of

the Ranariddh-Hun Sen government.

While many Funcinpec and BLDP supporters have fled to the Thai border resistance

base of O'Smach, others have gone into hiding or learned the value of silence, according

to residents and rights workers.

Funcinpec signs - as in other areas of the country - have virtually disappeared from

the provincial landscape and the main Funcinpec party office in Siem Reap town is

completely empty of political activity, staff or furniture.

Funcinpec members evacuated the party office in July. Today, even window shutters

and the pots for plants in the garden have been stripped. Inside, a painting of the

Royal family overlooks the empty office where the only remnants of political activity

are Funcinpec membership papers lying amid mounds of cow dung on the floor.

Chay said, however, that he is an exception to the intimidating atmosphere as he

gets along well with his "all CPP" staff. "I ask them to do work and

they work, everyday. They are busy. They work day and night and on Sunday. Here there

is no big problem between the two parties. In July, there were [problems], but not

since I returned. There is no big problem, except between the soldiers."

A CPP policeman said Funcinpec supporters were not the only victims of political

intimidation, as he was intimidated and detained by Funcinpec loyalists before they

retreated north to O'Smach.

"When Phnom Penh started fighting, I lost my freedom. If I went anywhere, they

would follow me and watch me," the second deputy police chief of Samrong district,

about 50km south of O'Smach, said Nov 9.

"I don't know what happened in Phnom Penh except what I heard on the radio.

But... I didn't want to fight. I want to live a long life. I was afraid when they

kept me at the police station that they would shoot me."

Funcinpec soldiers disarmed all CPP loyalists and tore down their placards from Samrong

town, he said. Later, after they retreated, the tables turned: "After the fighting,

police from other parties... either joined the CPP or they left town."

The tit-for-tat game touched political activities, the policeman added. "In

Samrong district, Funcinpec destroyed CPP signs. The CPP destroyed Funcinpec signs

when they arrived. The CPP signs have been put back up."

Toan Chay acknowledged political party placards are important for people trying to

show they are popular, but he suggested that they were unlikely to influence voters.

"It is bullshit to put the signs everywhere. It is like for beer, for Budweiser

and Angkor Beer and Heineken. Do you have those signs for political parties in your

country? I don't care, they can put them everywhere if they think it works."

Before the fighting, the CPP made another attempt to show their popularity - at least

in theory - by registering villagers in many districts of the province into their

party, according to human rights workers.

"They had to put their thumb print [on membership papers], whether they wanted

to or not. Many people have inquired to see if that means they have to vote for the

CPP," one rights worker said, adding that the registration drive took place

between March and July.

Villagers in Prasat Bakon district suggested that the signs and registration drives

are unlikely to have an impact on their votes, although they stressed that they are

still waiting to find out more about the elections and who will be permitted to run.

"I don't know who I will vote for in the second elections. If I vote for a party,

maybe they will win [the election], but they will lose [power]," a farmer woman,

41, said.

She was one of many villagers who noted that the leaders of Funcinpec - which won

the most votes in the 1993 United Nations-sponsored elections - are now effectively

out of power.

Still, all of the villagers spoken to by the Post said they would vote. "I don't

know who I will vote for now because I am afraid [but] I will know who to vote for

when the time comes," the farmer said. "Elections are very good for the

people. After elections, this area will be safer."

But she and others expressed fears that the lead-up to the elections will bring an

increase in crime and violence, as happened here during the 1993 election campaign.

"I have two guns, like everybody here. As we get close to elections, there will

be more robbers so we will need them," said a moto driver in Siem Reap town,

adding that locals were loath to turn the guns over to authorities."We need

them to protect ourselves."

Some 65km to the east, villagers said they are also waiting to hear details about

the planned elections. A 53 year-old woman with three children said: "We heard

about elections on the radio, but we don't have any details. If there is another

election, we want it to bring peace."

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