Kampong Cham, it would seem, has become Kem Sokha country.
Since the opposition’s disastrous showing at the 2012 commune elections, popularity for Sokha and the Cambodia National Rescue party has been surging here – and will have to, if the alliance between the Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha’s Human Rights Party is to make serious inroads this time around.
Simply being on the June 4 ballot should guarantee Sokha’s CNRP a better performance than five years ago, when the HRP and SRP won a combined 12 commune councils in this province to the CPP’s 161, and a mere 40 nationwide versus the CPP’s 1,592.
A month later, the two parties merged to create the CNRP, and at the July 2013 national election dealt a major blow to Prime Minister Hun Sen by winning about 460,000 votes to the CPP’s 375,000 in the province – the premier’s own homeland, where his brother served as governor.
The government, apparently spooked by the united opposition, has since that election run a campaign to discredit Sokha, with authorities aggressively investigating leaked telephone calls it says were between him and a young mistress. But it seems to have had little impact.
“In this village, everyone supports the CNRP. The people who were neutral before support the CNRP now,” said Long Bunna, a 36-year-old who works for a South Korean import-export company, and was on Saturday playing chess at a coffee shop in Prey Chhor district.
A sex scandal destroyed the career of another Hun Sen rival a decade ago – Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose name the premier made synonymous with womanising – but six months from the 2017 commune elections, the tactic has seemingly failed with Sokha, Bunna said.
“Let me ask these three people here,” he said, as he waited for his chess opponent to take his next move. “Has Kem Sokha’s popularity increased or decreased?” “Increased,” the men said without hesitating. Bunna said he had not before voted for the opposition but had been swayed by events like the garment workers shot dead in the last post-election protests.
“I supported the CPP before. At the national election in 2013, I voted for the CPP, but with social media, I have seen their misconduct, like the killing of the empty-handed people in January 2014,” he said. “Seven out of 10 people who I meet now support the CNRP.”
The CPP is apparently aware of its standing here, and in late 2013 it sliced the few CPP-majority districts into a new province, Tbong Khmum. Under the election laws, the split may help the CPP shore up an extra seat at the July 2018 national election, but it will be little help in next year’s ballot in Kampong Cham’s 109 remaining communes.
“People have heard about that news a lot,” Nhem Chanthou, a 45-year-old on her way home from a funeral, said of Sokha’s recent travails. “After watching the news, when we discuss it, everyone says that this is just politics, but that Kem Sokha’s ideas are cleaner.”
Chanthou added that she, as a woman, had not been turned off Sokha by the claims he had an affair. She said she had bigger concerns than his private life.
“Many women say there should be change, because there is not enough development,” she said. “It’s not just women, most people are saying: ‘This time, let’s try with that party, and let’s see how they go’.”“Around here, Hun Sen has lost his face.”
It was a common theme in interviews with about two dozen people across the province’s Prey Chhor and Kompong Siem districts, only about half of whom agreed to speak on the record – afraid to talk politics in a time in which opposing the premier is still seen as inviting danger.
“I have followed it on the radio,” said Chea Sreypov, a 52-year-old selling cakes on a dirt road about 5 kilometres behind the Prey Chhor market, for which she said she earns about 10,000 riel, or $2.50, a day. “If he had an affair, that’s his business. It does not impact the nation.”
“What’s my view? I have learned that sometimes, some people are saying they need change, but I myself am afraid of talking of this,” she said. “I just sell my things, and on voting day, I will go vote.”
Seang Hai, a 42-year-old farmer cross-stitching in the shade of her home in front of the rice fields, said that Sokha’s alleged affairs had not impacted her life and so did not change her views on him.
“I don’t see him differently now. That is a normal issue for most men, and I don’t have any accusations against him. [The CPP] went too far with this, and they could not see their own mistakes,” Hai said. Hai said Sokha’s good reputation had protected him from the downfall that Ranariddh suffered in 2006, when Hun Sen started to attack him for taking Ouk Phalla, his present wife, as a mistress.
“Prince Ranariddh was from the upper class,” she continued. “The difference is that Kem Sokha cares about the people, and helps the people, and also that he stayed here when they came to arrest him. What I have seen is that his support continues to increase.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has repeatedly fled when threatened with arrest – most recently in late 2015, to avoid a two-year prison sentence for defaming the old foreign minister – and Sokha’s nerve in standing up to Hun Sen was an unprecedented experiment.
It paid off a little more than a week ago, with Hun Sen requesting a royal pardon for Sokha rather than risk turning him into a martyr when his appeals against a five-month sentence for not turning up in court over his mistress ended and he would have to be imprisoned.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said yesterday by telephone that he was unconcerned by claims the government has used the period since the CNRP’s surprise gains at the 2013 national election to improperly attack Sokha and others, adding that he believed support for the ruling party was holding firm.
“We have no worries, because we have tried to build an uncountable number of achievements for the people, and if the people cannot see that, that is the people’s issue,” Eysan said. “It’s the right of the people, but we are optimistic they will continue to support the CPP.”
“On behalf of the CPP, we have never been scared about the completion of the election,” he continued. “For those interviews, it’s because the Phnom Penh Post went to only interview people who support the opposition. Therefore, this was the result.”
In Kampong Cham, however, it is difficult to find anyone willing to say they support the CPP. The ruling party’s light-blue metal signage – a common sight around the nation – had even been taken down from in front of its office for Chrey Vien commune.
The commune chief, Samrith On, was in Phnom Penh, according to an elderly woman living inside the compound, where the sign lay unceremoniously. By telephone, On acknowledged that Sokha’s problems over the last year had little impact on his constituents.
“They do not care about it,” On said. “I do not know why, but, for this case, they don’t pay attention. ”However, he said that did not amount to evidence that people supported the CNRP, which he said was inactive in the commune, as the CPP governed.
“We have not seen any actions that [suggest] they support the opposition. There were only 36 people that went to their [recent party] meeting, and yet they say that there are a lot of people supporting them,” On said, also pointing to the opposition’s poor performance in June 2012.
“In my district, a CNRP candidate becoming commune chief has happened in only one commune, and for this term, they might not have the chance of getting even one commune, because all we really see is the [opposition] lawmakers coming to visit,” he said.
Yet even those who have been prime candidates to support the CPP over the past two decades now seem reticent to speak badly of CNRP leaders or acknowledge support for the ruling party – even if they do plan to vote against Sokha’s party in six months.
“He’s a patriot,” said Oum Y, a 63-year-old retired soldier who still wears his fatigues, of Sokha, declining to reveal which party he would vote for but adding that the sex scandal had not changed his views. “It’s the same: He’s not nasty, and he’s not aggressive.”
“We just want to see the two parties get along well,” Y said. “We just do not want to see them killing each other. We want for our country to be happy."
Most who would talk here, though, said that they were not in fact happy with present circumstances.
Run Bunthoeun, a 38-year-old rubber tapper in town from the plantations of neighbouring Tbong Khmum – where he said he earns 300,000 riel to 400,000 riel a month (about $75 to $100) – said the elections would be about material living standards, not scandals.
“In my district, people are suffering, because the factories give us such small salaries. Now people are even stealing rubber resin to survive,” Bunthoeun said. “And if our bosses hear us talking about the CNRP, they will kick us out. But [on the plantations], everyone supports them.”
He went on to predict a turnaround from the last commune ballots – when Rainsy and Sokha’s separate parties won just 12 communes to the CPP’s 161, and the National Election Committee had yet to be reformed.“They are going to win here,” the rubber tapper said.
“Kampong Cham is CNRP territory now.”