Accessibility links

Breaking News

Amid Senate Campaign, a Climate of Fear Stifles Political Discussion


Signs advertising the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lie in the dirt at the Chantrey commune police office after being taken down when the party was dissolved in November last year. Feb. 15, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Even those who consider themselves supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party said they felt under pressure.

Cambodia’s third Senate election campaign was in full swing last week, with candidates fanning out to rural areas to drum up support among commune councilors, who will elect 62 senators on February 25.

Normally, political campaigns like this would be an occasion for discussion and debate about the merits of different parties and policies. But this year, things are different.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of Cambodia’s main opposition party by the Supreme Court in November, publicly supporting the opposition has become risky and, in some cases, illegal.

It is not just ex-party officials who are fearful. Even low-level supporters and those who had no formal affiliation with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) say they are scared to discuss politics and even meet with each other socially.

Sok Eysan, a spokesman and senior official for the ruling Cambodian People's Party, speaks to commune councilors in Romeas Hak district on Thursday as part of his campaign for a Senate seat in Svay Rieng province. “We don’t lie like the wind-and-smoke words of the contemptible Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha,” Eysan said. Feb. 15, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Sok Eysan, a spokesman and senior official for the ruling Cambodian People's Party, speaks to commune councilors in Romeas Hak district on Thursday as part of his campaign for a Senate seat in Svay Rieng province. “We don’t lie like the wind-and-smoke words of the contemptible Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha,” Eysan said. Feb. 15, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

In Romeas Hek district on Thursday, senior ruling party official Sok Eysan was on the campaign trail for a Senate seat he seems certain to win. Rather than discussing the issues facing the area, he spent much of his stump speech mocking former opposition leaders Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy—whom he repeatedly called a “son of a traitor.”

“We don’t lie like the wind-and-smoke words of the contemptible Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha,” Mr. Eysan declared.

Nearby the campaign event, in Chantrey commune, villagers told VOA they were anxious about publicly discussing even the most persistent problems in their area, such as the lack of electricity or running water, and the unpaved road running through the commune that kicks up dirt night and day.

The dusty unpaved road running through Romeas Hek district. Local villagers frequently complain about the quality of the road and would like their elected officials to help improve it. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
The dusty unpaved road running through Romeas Hek district. Local villagers frequently complain about the quality of the road and would like their elected officials to help improve it. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Along that road, Neth Samun, 56, runs a small grocery store that is often coated in a layer of dust. She and her customers used to chat about social issues, particularly the loneliness and lack of social cohesion in their village since so many young people have migrated away to find work in factories near Phnom Penh. Several of her 11 children have followed suit, and she cares for one grandchild whose mother is a garment worker.

“Before, we talked about garment factories, garment workers’ pay, and our nation’s issues, but now we don’t dare to talk,” she said.

“Before, there was a lot of talk when the CNRP existed. But now no one dares.”

Neth Samun, 56, who runs a small grocery store in Chantrey commune, says she is afraid to talk about politics anymore. “Before, we talked about garment factories, garment workers’ pay, and our nation’s issues, but now we don’t dare to talk,” said Samun. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Neth Samun, 56, who runs a small grocery store in Chantrey commune, says she is afraid to talk about politics anymore. “Before, we talked about garment factories, garment workers’ pay, and our nation’s issues, but now we don’t dare to talk,” said Samun. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Pen Samath, 52, who also owns a small shop along the road selling groceries and gasoline, said she was concerned about the potential loss of land to Vietnam, which borders the district.

Alleged Vietnamese border encroachment has been a potent political issue for the CNRP in past years, but most of the opposition’s loudest voices on the issue are now in exile.

Samath said she used to discuss Vietnam-Cambodia relations with other villagers and the local CNRP commune chief, Mey Dara. Now, he never even stops by her shop.

“It is very silent. Before, he came here and we talked,” she said.

“I don’t dare to talk,” she added. “I’m afraid of being mistreated. So I keep silent like the others.

Pen Samath, 52, who owns a small shop along the road in Chantrey commune, said she cannot communicate with ex-opposition officials anymore. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Pen Samath, 52, who owns a small shop along the road in Chantrey commune, said she cannot communicate with ex-opposition officials anymore. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

The situation is more intense for those who did have a formal affiliation with the opposition party.

Dara, the former CNRP commune chief, explained that he was being watched so closely that he hardly left his house.

Without a job or income, the 60-year-old tends to a small rice paddy and vegetable patch near his home. To earn extra money to replace his lost government salary, he and his wife rent out a loudspeaker they own and sell herbal medicine.

“If there is a gathering of four or five people, they will come to watch us,” he said, looking at the dusty road in front of his house where small cars and big trucks are passing.

Mey Dara and his wife, Chab Torn, sit together at their house in Chantrey commune while speaking with VOA. She says she is concerned that local authorities will find out about the interview or send someone to watch the house. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Mey Dara and his wife, Chab Torn, sit together at their house in Chantrey commune while speaking with VOA. She says she is concerned that local authorities will find out about the interview or send someone to watch the house. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

“I can’t communicate with villagers like before,” he added. “I am afraid that people will be accused of something,” he said.

As he spoke, his wife got up from a nearby hammock and interrupted her husband. “Is it OK to talk?” she asked. She proposed moving inside the house so nobody could see the couple speaking with a journalist.

Tith Marong, 66, an ex-CNRP district chief and Romeas Hek district councilor who also lost his post, said he was also being watched and feared traveling.

“We are watched every day. If we say something wrong, there is a problem,” he said.​

Tith Marong, 66, a CNRP district chief, says he is frequently watched by the government and fears traveling. “We are watched every day. If we say something wrong, there is a problem,” he said. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Tith Marong, 66, a CNRP district chief, says he is frequently watched by the government and fears traveling. “We are watched every day. If we say something wrong, there is a problem,” he said. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Dara and Marong, who are longtime friends, rarely even communicate anymore.

“Now we just meet when joining things like weddings and other religious ceremonies, and we just ask each other about other things, not about politics,” said Marong.

The new CPP commune chief, Leuk Sakhun, who inherited the position after Dara was stripped of the role, admitted freely that villagers were under surveillance.

Commune councilors from the Cambodian People's Party join a meeting with Sok Eysan, the CPP's spokeman and a Senate candidate. Feb. 15, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Commune councilors from the Cambodian People's Party join a meeting with Sok Eysan, the CPP's spokeman and a Senate candidate. Feb. 15, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

He said former opposition members were being watched in case they “form a group,” although the Cambodian constitution guarantees the right to free assembly and association.

“We follow and watch them,” he said.

One result of this has been that ordinary people rarely come together to talk about politics, the commune chief said.

The Cambodian People’s Party office in Chantrey commune is located in the same compound as the commune hall and police station, both of which are state buildings. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
The Cambodian People’s Party office in Chantrey commune is located in the same compound as the commune hall and police station, both of which are state buildings. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

“People have been silent after the party was dissolved,” he said. “No one talks. Previously, after the local election, people talked more.”

Chen Samean, 39, a farmer, agreed that she and other villagers who had been sympathetic to the opposition were wary of getting together.

“When we are together talking about politics and someone comes along, we stop talking for a while. When they are gone, we continue talking,” said Samean, a widow with five children.

“We keep what we know in our minds.”

Sok Saroeun, 73, a villager in Chantrey commune, is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. “No one dares to protest against Hun Sen,” he says. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Sok Saroeun, 73, a villager in Chantrey commune, is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. “No one dares to protest against Hun Sen,” he says. Feb. 14, 2018 (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Even Sok Saroeun, 73, who considers himself a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, said he felt under pressure.

“No one dares to protest against Hun Sen,” he said. “If you dare to protest, you will be destroyed.” He said his commune needed a new road, a water irrigation system, and a better health center.

Although he has voted for the CPP for as long as he can remember, he said he felt confused about the upcoming Senate election.

“I’m wondering and wondering how there is no one in the contest—it’s like you are in a contest alone and you win by yourself.”

XS
SM
MD
LG