SIEM REAP - In the outskirts of this province, the roadside signs of political parties
tell it all.
In the 65km stretch of Route 6 between Chi Kreng district and the provincial capital,
for example, more than 100 signs for the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) dot the road.
Two placards for the Khmer Citizen's Party of Nguon Soeur, an ally of the CPP, are
the only others. As for the CPP's competitors - Funcinpec, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic
Party (BLDP) and the Khmer Nation Party - there are none.
Amid widespread allegations of CPP violence and intimidation in outlying districts
of Siem Reap, there are no visible signs of an organized political opposition in
a province which was previously considered a non-CPP stronghold.
Siem Reap governor Toan Chay - who still calls himself a Funcinpec member despite
breaking from Prince Norodom Ranariddh in April and now considering forming a new
party - acknowledges the fears of party members.
"They are scared of political incidents, everybody is scared. My deputy governors
and I try to make them feel more secure. If they run away, it gives a bad image to
Chay said political intimidation swept through Funcinpec and their provincial allies
in the wake of Ranariddh's ouster in July.
The governor, a former military resistance leader of the 1980s who now works with
a provincial structure made up entirely of CPP loyalists, said rumblings of intimidation
continue to come from the army.
"If you do your own [political] activity, it is not against the law, but it
goes against these times," he noted.
The situation appears to be the same in other areas of the province, where many residents
are afraid to be cited by name or photographed for newspapers. Almost without exception,
villagers and townspeople are loathe to discuss politics directly.
"People are afraid that they will talk and then CPP officials will come visit
them in the night," said a 23-year-old resident of Siem Reap town.
Interviews with residents of more than a dozen villages made it clear that organized
political opposition is currently impossible in the wake of the disintegration of
the Ranariddh-Hun Sen government.
While many Funcinpec and BLDP supporters have fled to the Thai border resistance
base of O'Smach, others have gone into hiding or learned the value of silence, according
to residents and rights workers.
Funcinpec signs - as in other areas of the country - have virtually disappeared from
the provincial landscape and the main Funcinpec party office in Siem Reap town is
completely empty of political activity, staff or furniture.
Funcinpec members evacuated the party office in July. Today, even window shutters
and the pots for plants in the garden have been stripped. Inside, a painting of the
Royal family overlooks the empty office where the only remnants of political activity
are Funcinpec membership papers lying amid mounds of cow dung on the floor.
Chay said, however, that he is an exception to the intimidating atmosphere as he
gets along well with his "all CPP" staff. "I ask them to do work and
they work, everyday. They are busy. They work day and night and on Sunday. Here there
is no big problem between the two parties. In July, there were [problems], but not
since I returned. There is no big problem, except between the soldiers."
A CPP policeman said Funcinpec supporters were not the only victims of political
intimidation, as he was intimidated and detained by Funcinpec loyalists before they
retreated north to O'Smach.
"When Phnom Penh started fighting, I lost my freedom. If I went anywhere, they
would follow me and watch me," the second deputy police chief of Samrong district,
about 50km south of O'Smach, said Nov 9.
"I don't know what happened in Phnom Penh except what I heard on the radio.
But... I didn't want to fight. I want to live a long life. I was afraid when they
kept me at the police station that they would shoot me."
Funcinpec soldiers disarmed all CPP loyalists and tore down their placards from Samrong
town, he said. Later, after they retreated, the tables turned: "After the fighting,
police from other parties... either joined the CPP or they left town."
The tit-for-tat game touched political activities, the policeman added. "In
Samrong district, Funcinpec destroyed CPP signs. The CPP destroyed Funcinpec signs
when they arrived. The CPP signs have been put back up."
Toan Chay acknowledged political party placards are important for people trying to
show they are popular, but he suggested that they were unlikely to influence voters.
"It is bullshit to put the signs everywhere. It is like for beer, for Budweiser
and Angkor Beer and Heineken. Do you have those signs for political parties in your
country? I don't care, they can put them everywhere if they think it works."
Before the fighting, the CPP made another attempt to show their popularity - at least
in theory - by registering villagers in many districts of the province into their
party, according to human rights workers.
"They had to put their thumb print [on membership papers], whether they wanted
to or not. Many people have inquired to see if that means they have to vote for the
CPP," one rights worker said, adding that the registration drive took place
between March and July.
Villagers in Prasat Bakon district suggested that the signs and registration drives
are unlikely to have an impact on their votes, although they stressed that they are
still waiting to find out more about the elections and who will be permitted to run.
"I don't know who I will vote for in the second elections. If I vote for a party,
maybe they will win [the election], but they will lose [power]," a farmer woman,
She was one of many villagers who noted that the leaders of Funcinpec - which won
the most votes in the 1993 United Nations-sponsored elections - are now effectively
out of power.
Still, all of the villagers spoken to by the Post said they would vote. "I don't
know who I will vote for now because I am afraid [but] I will know who to vote for
when the time comes," the farmer said. "Elections are very good for the
people. After elections, this area will be safer."
But she and others expressed fears that the lead-up to the elections will bring an
increase in crime and violence, as happened here during the 1993 election campaign.
"I have two guns, like everybody here. As we get close to elections, there will
be more robbers so we will need them," said a moto driver in Siem Reap town,
adding that locals were loath to turn the guns over to authorities."We need
them to protect ourselves."
Some 65km to the east, villagers said they are also waiting to hear details about
the planned elections. A 53 year-old woman with three children said: "We heard
about elections on the radio, but we don't have any details. If there is another
election, we want it to bring peace."