Opposition leader Sam Rainsy will have to wait a little longer to visit the only province he hasn’t toured since his return from exile, as villagers and soldiers blocked his party from entering Oddar Meanchey’s Anlong Veng district, the last Khmer Rouge stronghold.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party was set to hold a public forum yesterday morning at the house of former district deputy governor Nhem En, who recently defected to the CNRP, but was stopped from doing so by authorities, En and local opposition officials said.
As Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, were travelling towards the Oddar Meanchey town, they heard the party was being blocked by soldiers and decided to turn back, Rainsy said.
The party has called off a further tour of the northwest planned for the next few days as a result of safety concerns.
Rainsy said the Interior Ministry told him that rogue members of the military were responsible.
“We have suspended [our tour], because these are so-called uncontrolled elements of the army. So we have talked with the Ministry of Interior, and they said they would do whatever is possible to ensure our liberty of movement. But they told us that those elements can’t be controlled,” he said.
The opposition believes this because “in that province, we saw police forces trying to ensure our freedom of movement and our safety, but those police forces were outnumbered by these army elements”.
A number of Interior Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
A soldier deployed to the area where the CNRP was blocked told the Post on the condition of anonymity that he was part of a large number of soldiers in the area who had defected to the government in the late 1990s, benefited greatly, and did not want the opposition leaders to criticise the ruling party in the district.
But according to the soldier, the wives and family members of many such troops were the ones who had gathered to block and protest the opposition party, while the soldiers were deployed to “keep order”.
According to En, Anlong Veng District Governor Yim Phanna and Anlong Veng commune chief Vong Pheak had refused him permission to hold a forum for about 2,000 opposition supporters at his home. En – who defected to the opposition last month – said it was politically motivated.
“When I had not joined the Cambodia National Rescue Party, I lived in harmony here, but after joining the CNRP, I have been intimidated and oppressed,” he said.
Phanna, the district governor, said the people of Anlong Veng clearly opposed the CNRP leaders visiting.
“Excellency Sam Rainsy does not need to come and stir up trouble here. People support the Royal government. They do not want [him] to do anything here,” he said.
The population of Anlong Veng – more than 40,000 – had received much since it became an “integration” area in the late-1990s, he said, and they were grateful to the CPP for it.
He added that soldiers had merely been deployed to keep order if clashes broke out.
Phanna also said he had only stopped En from holding a forum at his home because the house owner had complained that the rental contract was for a massage shop and guesthouse, not for political meetings.
According to CNRP lawmaker-elect Pol Ham, eight opposition officials had their phones confiscated by plainclothes soldiers yesterday.
“The individuals who took [our phones] were wearing plainclothes, but they had pistols at their waist,” he said.
Khamboly Dy of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia said the people of Anlong Veng had faced harsh conditions in the last years of the Khmer Rouge and are fiercely loyal to the CPP, thanks to the benefits that integration brought.
“Hun Sen’s win-win policy was a strategic measure that touched directly on the heart of the Anlong Veng’s residents and many other former KR soldiers and their families in other strongholds,” he said, referring to the strategy for bringing Khmer Rouge soldiers into the fold.
The CPP took nearly 60 per cent of the vote in Oddar Meanchey in last year’s election, along with its sole parliamentary seat. But according to Rainsy, the fact the opposition managed to garner “about 20,000 voters” despite irregularities shows the opposition has a local support base.
The CNRP will hold a press conference today in Phnom Penh to discuss yesterday’s incident.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH, CHEANG SOKHA AND JOE FREEMAN