Ly Khunn drapes his arm over his artificial leg, which he has worn since losing a
leg to a landmine while serving as a Khmer Rouge medic. Beneath the leaky shelter
of his roadside shop, he talks about how he might cast his vote for the party he
once fought in the civil war.
Former Khmer Rouge medic Ly Khunn may vote for the party he once fought against during the national election in July.
In Pailin, the former redoubt of the defeated Khmer Rouge, retired rebels and their
families say they are willing to elect their former foes provided they can deliver
on their promises to relieve poverty.
"Whether we like or hate the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is not the point,"
says Khunn, 40. "The CPP helps to build bridges, schools, hospitals and pagodas,
which is what the people want."
Election observers, political partisans and residents to whom the Post spoke say
that winning the hearts and minds of the country's poorest people is as much about
rice and roads as ideology.
Sam Oul, 55, a grocery seller who moved to Pailin from Kandal in 1996, says the CPP
is sure to win the next election. He explains, "Prime Minister Hun Sen builds
a lot of bridges, schools, and helps the poor people with rice and clothes."
Along-time election observer at Comfrel, an election monitoring NGO, says there has
been a shift in the CPP's political strategy toward rewarding those loyal to the
party rather than lashing out at its opponents.
Which is not to say that political violence, most of which is generally blamed on
the ruling party, has ceased. At least 17 commune council candidates and political
activists from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) were murdered in the run-up
to the 2002 commune elections.
But today, the Comfrel observer suggests, the carrot is proving more effective than
the stick to garner votes, especially among the rural poor.
"The CPP has the strength to make people vote for the CPP through gifts, not
through violence," he says. "The reason Hun Sen has changed strategy is
because he sees many people in Pailin as well as other provinces who say: 'If I get
gifts, then this party is the same as any other party.'"
The new tactic may have contributed to the drop in the pre-election violence that
human rights organizations have condemned over the past three elections. Dominic
Cardy, a program manager with the National Democratic Institute, says there have
been fewer reported incidences of violence and political killings in this latest
election period. However, he warns the trend might not hold.
"We hope things will stay as calm as they have been and hopefully become calmer,"
he says. "But until you reach the level where no one is hurt or killed, you
can't rest easy."
Pailin has experienced election violence before. Since it first took part in the
1998 elections, at least two killings and numerous acts of intimidation have given
the municipality a reputation as a hotspot for political harassment.
But as the July 27 election approaches, it seems the record of violence has improved.
Human rights monitors recorded only a few incidents of vandalism and one possible
political killing-the robbery and murder of the son of a SRP activist on May 10.
However, Sam Chankea, the provincial coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, says
the NGO is still investigating to determine whether it was a political slaying. In
fact, he says, Pailin has not had any serious problems to date.
Monitors are unsure if that will continue. But some agree it is possible that the
CPP, by capitalizing on government development projects, may have carved out a quiet
victory in Pailin without the violent tactics employed elsewhere.
A series of recent infrastructure projects in the formerly neglected area include
a new bridge and an improved road from Battambang. While not all such projects are
initiated by the CPP, election observers say the party generally takes credit for
them. Officials from the CPP do not dispute that.
"The reason people here support the CPP is that they see the actions of the
[party] to help them rebuild bridges and infrastructure," says CPP member Chav
Khann, who works as a security official in local government. "The [SRP] only
says it will do such things, but then doesn't undertake any real action."
Although Pailin was the first to send an SRP candidate to the National Assembly in
1998, it handed just five of its 44 commune positions to the opposition in last year's
local election. The CPP secured 36 commune seats and Funcinpec won three.
And Prime Minister Hun Sen has won popularity among some Pailin residents. A bridge
dedication ceremony by the PM on May 30 drew thousands to the site, and his speech
could be heard blasting from radios and tape players for days afterwards.
But not everyone here has chosen to rally around the ruling party. Sotha, a 46-year-old
farmer living near Pailin, believes his standard of living will improve only after
the CPP leaders are ousted from government.
"All the Cambodian people want to change the leader, because the old leader
cannot make the country better," he says. "Hun Sen does everything and
solves any problem by threatening people to do what he wants."
But Sotha does acknowledges that life is now better than under the Khmer Rouge.
"I can live with my family, I have clothes to wear, I have enough rice to eat,
and I have house in which I can live," he says.
As the election draws closer, each of the three main parties-the CPP, Funcinpec and
the SRP-contend that their candidate stands the best chance of taking Pailin's sole
Each has presented one candidate. The current governor, Y Chhien, is standing for
the CPP; Van Dara, a newcomer to national politics, will represent the SRP; and Pov
Senghak, who owns the city's largest hotel is running for Funcinpec.
While none can realistically claim to have the clear support of the electorate, questions
to local residents reveal that support for the royalists and the opposition seems
to have fractured.
"I was wrong in the last election because I voted for the party that didn't
do what they had promised beforehand," says Ly Khunn, who condemned Pailin's
SRP representative, Cambodian-American Sokum Hun, for not following through on his
For its part, the SRP concedes it must improve its record. Dara says that dissatisfaction
with her party's performance was the result of "mistakes" by party leaders
who sponsored the wrong candidate and failed to deliver on campaign promises. But,
she maintains, its supporters remain steadfast.
"The reason why the SRP could not help [the people of Pailin] is because we
did not join the government," says Dara. "The problems are not yet solved,
but the people understand that.
"The most important issue is that people want their freedoms," she continues.
"The governor, Y Chhien, doesn't allow people to have their freedoms. All the
rights of the people here are under the control of the authorities."
Pailin's power structure still resonates with names as sociated with the Pol Pot's
genocidal regime. Two children of the former Democratic Kampuchea foreign minister,
Ieng Sary, have positions in local government: his son, Ieng Vuth, is the CPP deputy
governor of Pailin, while his daughter Sophy chairs Pailin's Election Committee.
Y Chhien himself used to be Pol Pot's bodyguard, while the SRP's Dara is the niece
of former KR chief Ta Mok, who is now in prison awaiting trial. But their ties are
unlikely to put off the 22,930 registered voters, many of whom share that past, but
now want to concentrate on integration.
The remnants of the Khmer Rouge body politic, and their protégés, appear
to have combined old aspirations for power with what they claim are new ideas.
"Don't confuse that this area is still a Khmer Rouge area," says Ieng Vuth,
who says the theme of reconciliation dictates political discussion. "The people
only think about national solidarity. In order to rebuild the country progressively,
we have to coordinate and integrate with each other."
Vuth maintains that the relationship between Pailin and Phnom Penh is "under
the control of the government", just as with any other province or municipality.
And he dismisses the concerns of the SRP that Pailin's Election Committee, which
is headed by his older sister, is biased towards the CPP. He says the committee should
not have as many opposition members as CPP affiliates, because, "You cannot
compare 100 riel with 10 riel".
In short, says Vuth, the election atmosphere has remained free from intimidation
and bias. Support for his party derives from Hun Sen's "win-win policies",
not political coercion.
"If the opposition wants to win the election, they have to remain free and fair,"
says Vuth. "The Khmer people have had enough civil war for 30 years. They only