In a strong indication that opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s popularity extends well beyond his party’s Phnom Penh stronghold, an estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of Siem Reap town yesterday to greet him on the latest leg of a whirlwind pre-election tour of the provinces.
Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters thronged the streets for some 10 kilometres, travelling alongside his convoy in trucks, on motorbikes and on foot to welcome Rainsy, who has sped around the country campaigning since his return from self-imposed exile last Friday.
Che Thy, a 33-year-old soft-drink vendor, said she had waited hours to see Rainsy’s face.
“I waited here so long because I support the CNRP’s platform,” she said.
That platform seemed to have an overt anti-Vietnamese tinge to it yesterday.
Some CNRP supporters, shouting through loudspeakers, called for Vietnamese migrants to be pushed out of Cambodia.
And Rainsy himself was more than willing to play to those feelings.
In a speech, the CNRP leader — who, despite receiving a Royal pardon, is not allowed to run as a candidate in Sunday’s election — declared he would wrest back the centuries-old Angkor Wat complex from the “Vietnamese”.
This was likely a reference to Sok Kong, the businessman whose company, Sokimex, operates the lucrative Angkor Wat tourism site.
“I will bring justice for you all because Angkor Wat [revenue] can feed the whole of Siem Reap province,” Rainsy told cheering supporters.
The opposition leader also tapped into the enduring sense of pride and strength the Kingdom’s national treasure brings out in people, vowing to rebuild Cambodia into a modern-day equivalent of the Angkorian Empire.
“As president of the CNRP, I will build this country up to be as strong as the empire of Angkor, and [my government’s] priority will be to re-seize Angkor Wat from the Vietnamese,” he said.
It was rhetoric that impressed his audience.
Riv Chi, a 25-year-old drink seller at Angkor Wat, said she believed Vietnamese were given more freedom to operate businesses in Siem Reap than she was.
“Why can’t I sell my products for free? I pay daily, monthly and yearly fees. But Vietnamese do not pay this.”
She added that she believed many Vietnamese in Siem Reap city’s Chong Khneas commune had the right to vote. But Nim Vansam, head of the Siem Reap Provincial Election Committee (PEC), called Rainsy’s speech an old trope, noting the opposition frequently stirs up anger about Vietnamese voting in that area.
“The opposition has a right to file complaints, but these Vietnamese they speak of have been on the voter list since UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia],” he said. “I don’t know how many Vietnamese have the right to vote, but the political message of the opposition may just be aimed at blasting the ruling party.”
Sieng Nam, a Cambodian People’s Party candidate for Siem Reap, was unperturbed by Rainsy’s focus on the Vietnamese.
“I don’t care what the CNRP does,” he said. “Whatever they say, I’m not surprised. But I don’t want to fight a mad dog.”
Since arriving back in Phnom Penh to a crowd of more than 100,000 people last Friday, Rainsy has toured a number of provinces with his deputy, Kem Sokha.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said he was not surprised by the crowds that have flocked to see Rainsy, despite a perception that the majority of the opposition’s support is confined to the Kingdom’s capital.
“The turnout compared with previous elections is not double, it’s 10 times more,” he said. “But it was happening before Rainsy came. I don’t know if it’s the merger or the policies or if people are just fed up with the government.
Rainsy coming has just been a bonus.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL