THE BIRTH OF A NEW ERA
A former Khmer Rouge soldier soaks up democracy during
a visit to Pailin by opposition politician Sam Rainsy.
PAILIN - Most of the old cinema's ceiling has disappeared and a few tables and an
empty wooden shelf have been shoved in instead. The local Provincial Election Commission
[PEC] has set up shop.
The refurbishment might be spartan but all the PEC members are allegedly democrats
at heart - former Khmer Rouge who say they are ready to play the game of elections
Two years ago PEC Deputy Director Ream Somean was a lieutenant colonel in Division
415 under young general Ee Chhean, now the Pailin governor.
"I collaborated with Ee Chhean and others soldiers to join the government. The
people can have a better life now that the fighting has stopped,'' he said.
The old soldier defended the election. "Pailin's people and I prefer the pluralist
system. The only way to address problems is by organizing an election," he said,
trying to be persuasive.
All around the former KR stronghold, the leaders speak of the glory of democracy
and the electoral process. As a leitmotiv the former KR chant a mantra of democracy,
the natural rights of the people to choose their leaders and national reconciliation
that will end the fight between Khmers and Khmers. Some are even party candidates
The town's deputy governor, Ieng Vuth explained that a lot has changed in Pailin.
"Before the leaders told the people to do this or that. Now we do not have the
power to force them to vote. Before the Khmer Rouge gave them bicycles so they had
to do what the Khmer Rouge say. Today, most of the people are doing business themselves
so they can do whatever they want," said Vuth, Ieng Sary's son.
Somean is optimistic. He is convinced the election will go smoothly in Pailin. "We
are not facing any problems here. There is only one seat and people do not want to
compete. Seven parties have registered but only three have opened offices,"
he explained. "We hear rumors from what is happening outside, but here there
will not be any problems."
The Sam Rainsy Party, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Funcinpec are the only
ones who have opened offices. All have chosen candidates that could suit the local
electorate. Eight out of the 12 candidates on the list are former Khmer Rouge.
Because of the influx of new settlers, only half of the 16,000 registrations are
"old people", but they're the ones the campaigning politicians are trying
Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, a CPP candidate in Battambang, gave 10kgs of rice
to each family during a recent visit to town - but only to families of the former
"It is good if all parties come here to campaign. People will have enough rice
to live for two months," said a smiling Col Nheap, a former deputy of Ee Chhean.
Now he's in charge of RCAF Division 22.
But the colonel is one of the few not to show a tremendous enthusiasm for the electoral
process in his town. "Only three parties are running in Pailin, it is OK. Any
more and it could have been chaos," he said.
Still, despite the few numbers of competitors, chaos nearly reached Pailin. The PEC
had to set up a few regulations in order to avoid problems between the candidates.
The first rule was to ban the words "youn"(Vietnamese) and "ayong"(puppet).
"Sam Rainsy was cursing the other party naming them ayong. CPP was unhappy because
in the past they were ayong," he said, adding immediately, "Now they have
A meeting was organized and a compromise was found to ban the words in public meetings.
"We do not want a party to criticize and talk about the past," said Somean.
The PEC also had to settle an argument between Ee Chhean and Funcinpec candidate
Sou Kim. Ee Chhean called for Kim's arrest, saying he was a Khmer Rouge hardliner
who had not joined the government. Kim had to leave and ask the NEC to settle the
case before being able to come back.
"I do not understand," said Kim. "I lived here when they defected
to the government. Last year, Ee Chhean asked me to give refuge to Funcinpec people
who fled from [the fighting] in Phnom Penh, and [then] he used this argument to accuse
me of being a [hardline] Khmer Rouge."
Most of Pailin's leaders assure reporters that their pasts have been left behind.
What seemed impossible two years ago when the Khmer Rouge propaganda was vilifying
the CPP and its leadership is now true. The CPP has opened a party office in town.
Party flags hang from the wall and portraits of Hun Sen and Bun Rany decorate the
Ym Seth used to be a deputy commander of Division 415. He is now the deputy president
of the CPP office in Pailin.
Seated on a big strong wooden bench with photos of his former enemies Chea Sim, Heng
Samrin and Hun Sen behind him, Seth said, "They are as Khmer as me".
He explained the reasons choosing the CPP. "During more than 20 years, I fought
against the CPP. But the CPP was the first to recognize us at the integration. The
CPP did not force the soldiers and civilians here. It gave Pailin leaders the ability
to control Pailin. The CPP gave a seat to Pailin."
CPP candidate Kak Kan gave the same reason for his new affection toward a former
The two men said they expect to get 80% of the vote. "We cannot order [our former
soldiers] to vote for us but we can educate them about the CPP's policy," said
"Most of the voters believe in the candidates that used to live in Pailin. We
understand each other well," added Seth.