Phsar Trey is smack in the middle of Poipet town. The market is a warren of narrow alleys filled with vendors, shoppers and motodops going about their daily lives.
Vong Kimhong sits in her grocery store surrounded by boxes of sugary Thai drinks, detergent and crispy snacks. She’d hardly finished saying her husband just called when her phone rang: It was him again, calling from prison.
“Please send my message out to the people,” he said, his voice crackling over the cellphone.
Kimhong’s husband is Chao Veasna, the opposition CNRP’s second deputy chief of Poipet commune who has been in jail since February, when a two-year-old court case was resurrected relating to a 2015 protest at a local customs office.
Cross-border fees prompted porters to stage the protest, which soon turned violent, with protesters throwing bricks at the customs office and burning tyres, and Military Police retaliating by beating them and firing shots in the air.
Veasna was blamed for inciting the rioters – an accusation he called “slander” at the time – but no arrest was made at the time. Two protesters later questioned over the violence also denied having ever heard of Veasna.
The case appeared to have been laid to rest until, two years later and just months shy of the commune elections, Veasna was arrested and promptly sent to pre-trial detention in February.
His case, along with other apparent political oddities and pressing economic issues, has made Poipet a locale to watch in the upcoming June 4 commune elections.
“I just want to ask – if I had made a mistake why didn’t they arrest me in 2015?” Veasna asked. “When the election approached and they could not get support like me, is that when they put me in jail instead?”
Veasna on Wednesday was calling from a prison phone – his only contact with his constituents. He puts the blame for his jailing squarely on the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – saying such a drastic and politically motivated move would not have been necessary if they had instead focused on working for the people. Reached over two days, Poipet commune chief candidate for the CPP Ang Tea Heng did not respond to requests for comment.
Cooped up in jail, the commune councillor is anxious to get out and campaign for the elections on June 4. “I want to serve the people and the court should not detain me any longer,” Veasna said. “What kind of court is this? I don’t understand.”
And while the detention has kept him away from the campaign trail, his name still features as commune chief candidate for the June ballot, and he is not ready to throw in the towel.
“Only bad people will appreciate my detention,” he said. “Why will people vote for me? Because of my good deeds.”
The phone cuts out – he has eaten through his $3 of phone credit.
Nestled in the country’s northwest corner, Poipet is a critical outpost for bilateral trade with Cambodia’s bigger neighbour, Thailand. Crossborder trade stood at $5.6 billion in 2016.
But the city also positions itself as a den of debauchery. The main strip – a potholed and muddy street – is lined with about a dozen large casinos, with many other online gambling cafes peppered in between.
The border town attracts wealthy Thai nationals, who are prohibited from hitting the tables back home, as well as Cambodians – also technically banned from gambling in their own country, though the ban is only sporadically enforced.
Walking through the streets around Phsar Trey, commune residents are aware of Veasna, but many do not know he is in prison. They have other gripes on their mind.
Local infrastructure – especially road construction – has been patchy in the town’s three communes. While attempts have been made to lay concrete roads for main thoroughfares, many are incomplete and abruptly end in a potholed track.
“It seems like nothing has improved. The street, if you don’t build it by yourselves, you will get stuck in it,” said one rice vendor, who asked for anonymity.
Another major issue is the frequent protests and grouses expressed by market vendors, who sell their wares across the border, and by the porters who transport these goods.
While market vendors have had run-ins with Thai authorities, most recently over the sale of counterfeit goods, porters are unhappy with customs fees – mostly unofficial – that cut into their earnings and often result in skirmishes like the one Veasna stands accused of inciting.
“I bring goods from Thailand to Cambodia and I get paid between 50,000 to 60,000 riel,” said porter Hang Sim. “But I have to pay 5,000 or 10,000 riel at the border police station.”
Sim said he felt hopeless and believed “change” was the only option to better his prospects.
Though the issues are serious, Poipet recently made national headlines for a more absurd reason. Last year, local union leader and then-CNRP official Mang Puthy was charged for allegedly hitting immigration police official Chhean Pisith with his car.
The incident purportedly took place on the sidelines of a minor altercation between police and motodops, which Puthy was attempting to resolve. But when a video clip of the alleged vehicular assault emerged on social media, Pisith instantly became a national joke.
The clip showed Puthy’s car moving almost imperceptibly when Pisith abruptly collapses to the ground in front of it. Officials said Pisith had to be sent to Thailand for treatment and released images of him in a hospital bed wearing a neck brace, but CCTV footage from a Thai guesthouse showed the immigration official walking unhindered with a lady friend in tow.
Netizens were quick to create multiple memes ridiculing the border official, bestowing him with the moniker “Choub Sanlop”, or “Meet to Faint” – a play on the alias “Chuob Samlab”, or “Meet to Kill”, used by the murderer of analyst Kem Ley.
Puthy was charged with aggravated violence but later released on bail, in what many consider a face-saving move by the local government to quell the social media fury. The incident has not gone down well with Poipet residents. “With this case, it makes us aware that a powerful person is still the strong man and the poor people are still afraid of them,” said jewellery seller Chamroeun Chhay.
“Yeah, he made Poipet look bad. We don’t like that and we don’t want bad people [here],” said repairman Cheang Rong, as he fidgeted with his tools.
The Cambodian People’s Party has kept a firm grip on Banteay Meanchey’s communes. In 2012, it won 64 of the province’s 65 commune chief positions – the sole non-CPP chief came from the royalist Funcipec party.
Despite the blowout, the opposition did improve its standing in the 2013 national elections, winning two of the province’s six National Assembly seats and securing just under 30 percent of the votes – double the 14 percent vote share it had the year before.
But union leader Puthy, who has since quit the CNRP but still aligns with the party, believes there is a swelling disquiet that could see the main opposition party make bigger gains.
Apart from being thrust in the national limelight for the Pisith case, Puthy is also a co-accused in the 2015 riot that saw cases against Chao Veasna and eight porters.
“Because we are brave and look for solutions for the people, this will make the CNRP get more support than 2013,” said Puthy, the executive director of the Cambodia Informal Economy Reinforced Association.
Puthy contends that there is a high level of discontent among transportation workers and porters, calling the taking of unofficial fees a “cross-border crime”.
That, coupled with the legal hassles faced by him and Veasna, had only intensified a shift towards the CNRP.
“They look for tricks to arrest me and Chao Veasna and put [us] in jail,” he said. “All of these problems will make people lose trust in the CPP, and even the courts in Cambodia.”
But for Ung Oeun, former provincial governor and a senior CPP official, these are only isolated and “individual” cases that will have little impact when voters head to the polling stations.
“The individuals who commit mistakes, they have to face the law. Those who don’t understand the law will think it was [the CPP’s] mistake,” he said on Wednesday. “So I hope that those who understand the law, they will not turn to support that [CNRP] side.”
Rather than declining, Oeun says the CPP’s support base has only grown. “We don’t have any problems. We expect there will be political support [for us].”
Back at the market, an elderly gentleman, Sar Yen, wears his party of choice on his shirt pocket, which bears the CPP logo of an angel throwing flowers. The CPP will bank on Yen and other party loyalists’ support in the upcoming elections.
Yen has not heard of Chao Veasna or Chhean Pisith, and has only praise for senior party members like Prime Minister Hun Sen and Heng Samrin, president of the National Assembly.
“I think there is no other person better than him [Hun Sen] in the world. In this commune, we are having happiness,” he said.
As Veasna’s call drops, Kimheng says it was the second time he had called that day. It is only 8am. “On the day of the first campaign he called me almost 10 times. He asked me if there were many people still supporting us,” she said.
Kimheng has become a conduit for Veasna’s absentee campaign.
“He called CNRP officials to ask about the campaign, but they did not pick up,” she said. “He called me to ask why they were still sleeping?”
While supporting her husband’s campaign, Kimheng said it was still difficult to comprehend the circumstances that have put them in this position.
“We are under their rule. They can say we are good or bad; it depends on them,” she said.