​Rainsy of the Mekong: Rickety boats and MSG jokes | Phnom Penh Post

Rainsy of the Mekong: Rickety boats and MSG jokes


Publication date
17 July 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : James Eckardt

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Rainsy may well profit at the polls because of promises that he will stamp out

corruption tolerated by the CPP and Funcinpec.

FROM a rickety pier in Phnom Penh, Sam Rainsy and his crew of 40 aides and bodyguards

clambered aboard the express boat to Kratie for a two-day campaign swing through

six towns along the Mekong.

As the ancient steel boat wheezed away from the pier, a ratcheting clank came from

the engine room, sounding like the propeller dropping off its shaft. The boat sat

dead in the water.

"This boat is like Cambodia," Sam Rainsy muttered in despair. "Going


Boarding a second boat, the crew gamely set off up the Mekong. At 10:30, outside

Kampong Cham, three huge barges lumbered down river, laden with hundreds of prime

round logs. On the left bank, Kroch Chhmar came into view, a collection of shiny

tin shacks centered around a 40-foot-high pier, a sawmill and six log chutes. There

were log boats, log cranes, log barges, log trucks, log horsecarts and, scattered

on the shore like pickup sticks, logs.

At noon, the boat landed at Chambo village to a rapturous welcome by 40 Sam Rainsy

Party stalwarts, cheering "Chaiyos!" and hoisting SRP banners. The party

scattered to a motley collection of pickup trucks, motorbikes and ponycarts. Flags

flying, loudspeaker blaring, the campaign procession moved down a muddy track, Rainsy

in the lead atop the bed of a pickup truck.

For six km, every house along the way was plastered with CPP posters, but many villagers

laughed and grabbed for SRP leaflets.

At a temple compound, Rainsy dismounted and plunged into a crowd of about 2,000.

Along a roped corridor, grinning people were packed ten and twenty deep. Rainsy would

lean into the crowd with outstretched arms to be grasped by dozens of eager hands.

"He started doing that last week," observed an Australian film maker. "It

seems to work. He does it everywhere now."

On a dais before the temple, Rainsy launched into his speech.

"I'm glad you all came today. Our country faces big problems of injustice and


"Farmers suffer from drought because the big trees have been cut down. Their

families are victims of famine. Our natural resources that used to belong to the

Khmer people are now being sold by corrupt officials and sent to Vietnam. . . Ranariddh

and Hun Sen made timber deals and destroyed trees and made war. Both are corrupt.

I will join neither of them."

Rainsy condemned the exploitation of factory workers, promising to raise salaries

from $40 to $60 per month. Then he veered off on a comic riff about monosodium-glutamate

(MSG), commonly given by the CPP to its supporters: "Do you want MSG or peace

and justice? The power of justice will defeat the power of MSG!"

The crowd laughed, then hushed as Rainsy recalled the grenade attack of March 30

last year.

"I heard voices: get down or die! Bodies pushed me. There were three grenade

explosions, black smoke, so much blood on the road. One person covered me to protect

me. He died so that I may live. Vote for me. Protect your life like he protected

mine... Don't be afraid. Vote freely. When they count the votes, we will see who

will be the first party. Remember, the Sam Rainsy Party candle is the hope of the


The express boat arrived at Kratie town at four in the afternoon, two hours late,

but the shore was lined for 400 yards by cheering, placard-waving supporters. Again,

Rainsy waded into the loud and festive crowd. The campaign convoy rolled to a temple

on the outskirts of town where Rainsy faced a crowd of 2,000.

As he went into his comic riff on MSG the crowd laughed. In one corner stood a tall

group of elite military police in blue berets. They were cracking up too.

"I have no gifts to give, only faith in the future," Rainsy declared. "The

CPP gives gifts but only one percent. The other 99% they put in their own pockets.

And how long does your MSG last? Only a few days at most. Who will protect you for

the next five years? If you steal from an individual, that is bad, but to steal from

a nation is much worse. The CPP has been robbing the nation. The party got power

from foreigners in 1979. Now they are selling our resources to pay them back. . .

"Your voting slip is as precious as your life. If you vote wrong, you will get

someone who serves foreigners, destroys the country and promotes corruption to make

the people poor."

Back on the boat, Rainsy was in a good mood as he bantered with journalists. "I

expect to get over half the votes here."

The boat headed downriver to the village of Chhlong. The 300-strong crowd here, mostly

old people, had been waiting for three hours. They gave Rainsy and party an ecstatic

welcome. In a large wooden house overlooking the river, Rainsy took part in a Buddhist

prayer service with 50 monks.

At tables under a tent, aides and bodyguards settled down to a meal of fish salad,

fish soup and fish. At a tableful of journalists was Dr Caroline Hughes, from Hull

University, on a one year grant to write a book about the elections. She has been

covering the campaigns of five parties.

"The CPP's campaign does not go into personalities," she said. "They

point out the benefits of party membership, why it is better for you to be inside

the party. Funcinpec tends to attract an older crowd. The Sam Rainsy rallies attract

many younger people, but also a whole cross section of the population."

Also at the table was Moran, a young Cambodian from Montreal, an SRP fund raiser

who has come to join Rainsy. He talked about the campaign. A reporter offered an

analogy for Cambodia:

"In Nicaragua you had the Sandinistas and Danny Ortega, a guerrilla leader who

came to power by force. He held a free and fair election and lost to Violetta Chamorra,

a newspaper publisher. When he lost, he handed over power, though his brother Humberto

kept control of the army and police. Could such a solution happen in Cambodia?"

Moran thought long and hard. "No," he finally answered, and launched into

a complicated skein on Cambodian politics, ending with the plaint: "Sometimes

I hate being Cambodian."

By eleven o'clock, most of the Rainsy party was asleep on the floor of the house.

Rainsy stayed up till midnight talking with the monks.

"It was quite democratic," Rainsy said of his conversation. "They

asked me questions like laymen would do: what can they do to help the country? As

monks, they cannot support a political party but they can vote. They are the moral

backbone of the country."

Where do you get your money for the campaign?

"The campaign doesn't cost much, about $500 a day for transport and food. Poverty

is our strength. You're less effective if you have more money. This is a paradox:

the poorer you are, the more powerful. Hun Sen doesn't understand that. And Funcinpec

is rich and corrupt and has many internal disputes about how to share out the money.

We don't have disputes because we have nothing to share.

"For the past three years, overseas money made up 90% of our resources. But

in the last month, traders and mid-level businessmen have been contributing to us.

They want free, open competition. As it is now, the mafia has a stranglehold on us."

Presented with the analogy of Nicaraguan elections, Rainsy replied: "The real

problem is not the transfer of power. Hun Sen is aware of examples like Nicaragua.

He will prevent our victory and win. It is impossible for us to win. I have no illusion

that this election can produce a victory."

So why do you run at all?

"My conscience. Elections make ideas clear and spread them. If there are no

elections, war is the alternative. I will not betray the will of the people. I can

raise their hopes."

At 9:50, the boat swung in toward the town of Strung Trang. "We're ten minutes

early for once," Rainsy said. "This is Hun Sen's birthplace. We'll see

what happens."

What happened is a mob of 3,500 lined the landing stage and the roofs and balconies

of shoreline shophouses, chanting: "Sam RainSY! Sam RainSY!" Rainsy surfed

through the crowd, then stood atop a table, microphone in hand. In fierce sunlight,

the crowd settled down to the squat-and-fan mode, campaign leaflets doubling as hats.

They burst into applause at yuon-bashing lines:

"For twenty years, the forests have belonged to Hun Sen. He sells the forests

to the yuon [Vietnamese]. Khmer people cannot vote but yuon can. Do you want another

twenty years of yuon?"

Back on the boat, Rainsy stretched out over two seats and slipped on a sleeping mask.

He was still asleep an hour later when the boat anchored off the beach at Koh Toch

("Little Island"). The crew jumped in for a swim. Rainsy awoke for the

arrival of a film crew from Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Rainsy donned

a pair of shorts and was filmed jumping into the Mekong.

Twenty minutes later, there was a sudden panic among the bodyguards. Where was Rainsy?

A fisherman pulled up to report that Rainsy had swum across the river. The express

boat raced to the other bank. Atop a 40-foot embankment, a man in a wet sarong was

grinning and waving: "He's up here!"

Journalists, photographers, film crew, aides, bodyguards, scrambled up the muddy

bank to find Rainsy chatting happily with a score of villagers. They at first mistook

him and two companions for victims of river pirates until an old man recognized Rainsy.

As the cameras rolled, the candidate declaimed: "This shows I am a strong man

who can cross the Mekong. I can cross any obstacles."

"Hun Sen went swimming yesterday too," a reporter said. "So now you've

got the title: Strongman of the Mekong?"

"Not that kind of strongman. But I can run fast, swim, ride a horse. Maybe Hun

Sen and I should compete like that. It would be peaceful and funny for the people."

A final stop at Srey Sunthor town in Kampong Cham was something of an anticlimax.

The rally was held at a wat 9 km out of town. A tepid crowd of 500 failed to respond

to Rainsy's wade-into-the-mob move. Back in town, Rainsy did a stand-up interview

for ABC. He repeated a litany of complaints about the registration and voting process.

"How many seats will you win?" a reporter asked.

"Higher if there is lower intimidation; lower if there's more intimidation.

. . I could win 20-25 seats, which will allow me to do nothing."

"But if you have that many seats, the government would have to bring you in."


At sunset, the boat was heading into choppy, white-capped waters. A massive thundercloud

stretched across the Mekong. As a cold wind ripped across the deck, almost everyone

headed below. The camera crew delighted in filming the approaching storm, though,

and suddenly Rainsy appeared on deck. As cameras turned toward him, he grinned into

the teeth of the wind, thrusting his right arm forward like John Wayne leading a

cavalry charge.

"Forward, Cambodia!" he cried. "Forward, Cambodia!"

"Forward the Strong Man of the Mekong!" someone shouted.

"Yes!" Rainsy laughed. "Forward the Strong Man of the Mekong!

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