REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA)
By Ek Madra
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – A month of campaigning kicked off in Cambodia on Thursday for an election almost certain to give another five years in power to Prime Minister Hun Sen, an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier in charge for the last 23 years.
Thousands of supporters turned up at rallies for Hun Sen’s ex-communist but now firmly free market Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and its main challenger, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), led by its eponymous French-educated former finance minister.
Hun Sen, 57, who lost an eye in Pol Pot’s assault on Phnom Penh in 1975, did not address the rally, leaving it to party president Chea Sim to unleash the torrents of anti-SRP invective and threats of renewed fighting that typify CPP electioneering.
“Those ill-willed people always pump themselves up by telling lies, deceiving, insulting and agitating conflict in society,” Chea Sim, also an ageing Khmer Rouge guerrilla, told the crowd.
Sam Rainsy struck a more sophisticated note, calling for greater investment in health, education and rural development in the southeast Asian nation, which remains one of the region’s poorest despite five years of near double-digit growth.
“The current high levels of inflation, corruption and land grabbing are the major issues that need to be resolved,” he told his supporters.
With most families still bearing the scars of the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields”, in which an estimated 1.7 million people died, Hun Sen’s argument to have brought peace and stability, and more recently strong growth, virtually assure him of victory.
Despite the angry tone of the campaign rhetoric, the political violence that has marked previous polls — including the murder of predominantly but not exclusively of SRP supporters — is way down, human rights groups say.
On the eve of campaigning, Hun Sen called on the army and government officials to remain impartial although as with many things in the nation of 14 million there is a large gap between what the government says and the situation on the ground.
Instead of violence, rights groups say the CPP is using the courts to cow its opponents, with an 18-month jail term hanging over former co-premier and FUNCINPEC leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh should he chose to return from self-imposed exile.
A newspaper editor and opposition candidate was also briefly jailed earlier this month after being accused of defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in an article about the Khmer Rouge.
The European Union is sending 130 observers to monitor the election, which is to be held on July 27. In all, 11 political parties are competing, and there are 8.1 million registered voters.