MISSING out on a chance to go toe-to-toe with its main rival before a crowd of thousands – and a radio audience of millions – the Cambodia National Rescue Party boycotted a Kandal province debate yesterday, citing the presence of what they described as disguised ruling-party activists.
Despite the vehemently delivered complaint from the CNRP – which has criticised the Cambodian People’s Party for its reluctance to engage in policy debates – yesterday’s forum proceeded apace, with both the ruling party and royalist Funcinpec taking the opportunity to tout their parties’ achievements.
Just before the National Democratic Institute-organised debate was set to begin, CNRP candidate Ou Chanrith singled out a group of mostly young people wearing CNRP hats and shirts, accusing them of being “fake” supporters, planning to make a show of switching to the CPP.
“Please be tolerant, I was ready to face off with the ruling CPP in the debate, but [I won’t] since they are playing a trick like this,” he said. “So we will absolutely not join this debate. And to the supporters of the CNRP, please go back home.”
After Chanrith departed, CPP candidate Aun Porn Moniroth made a brief appearance in front of the stage, prompting thunderous applause, some of the most vociferous of which came from the young “CNRP” activists. Shortly thereafter, the CNRP paraphernalia disappeared, as shirts were peeled off, and hats turned inside-out.
When asked, one of the young people maintained that he was a CNRP supporter, while another said that he didn’t “know what [he] came for,” but said someone had “arranged” for them to be there.
One man who declined to be named, however, said that he had driven one of the five or six trucks that brought the men to the rally and that they were employed by local developer 7NG Group.
“I heard they received some money [to come], but I’m not sure how much, and when the forum is finished, they will hold a party,” he said.
Whatever the men’s affiliation, they had broken no law, and caused no disturbance, and the CNRP’s decision to withdraw had been “unprofessional”, NDI senior director Laura Thornton said.
“It was a huge missed opportunity for the opposition. They get so few opportunities to be heard by that many people on the radio,” she said, noting that the debate would be broadcast later on numerous channels, including the nationwide state-run station.
Chanrith, explaining later, acknowledged the missed opportunity, but said the move was necessary.
“I know, but the radio is not as strong as their coverage,” he said, noting that the television footage of a group of ostensible CNRP supporters defecting mid-debate would have been impossible to counter. “They have all the TV stations.”
Thornton allowed that if the claims against the activists were true, the ploy would have been “a dirty trick” but said that, nonetheless, in mature democracies like the United States, the presence of non-party plants at intra-party debates is simply a fact of life.
The decision to boycott also disappointed some actual CNRP supporters, including one attendee who gave his name as Phy.
“I am really regretful that they decided not to join,” he said, taking off his CNRP hat after having rushed over to see Chanrith speak. “I hoped to have a chance to listen to the [CNRP] platform, but he boycotted.”
Hosted on the grounds of a Ksach Kandal district pagoda, and watched over by larger-than-life concrete statues of elephants and tigers, the debate was attended by thousands of voters, who crammed into party-coloured tents, and milled in every available inch of shade. In the absence of the opposition, however, the debate began to take on a somewhat one-sided slant.
If the CPP sticker- and flag-festooned houses that lined the road leading to the debate are any indication, the ruling party enjoys broad support in Ksach Kandal, and candidate Porn Moniroth – exuding confidence – took some softball questions as opportunities to list the party’s achievements.
“If you look outside, you see the concrete road. If you look over there, you can see the school. If you look to the left, you see the bridge,” he said, gesturing towards nearby structures. “This is because of the wise leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen.”
When one audience member asked, “Who built the factories?” Porn Moniroth replied, “I don’t need to answer that question; the people in the front can answer that.”
“Only Prime Minister Hun Sen can create the conditions” for economic investment, he added.
However, Funcinpec candidate Neang Chhayana held her own, making one or two subtle gibes at the CNRP, and noting that the CPP wasn’t solely responsible for Cambodia’s development.
“There are other parties as well,” she said, adding that Funcinpec had been “indispensable” in the country’s growth.
Not all of the attendees’ questions were lobbed over the plate. One participant pointedly asked why the CPP gives out gifts come election season. (Porn Moniroth maintained that the practice was simply a manifestation of a year-round “spirit of the CPP to share” with citizens.)
Even without the opposition, however, not everyone in attendance was swayed by the CPP. Sitting on a motorbike on the edges of the venue, 63-year-old Hay Than said parties always talked about the good they’ve done, but after 20 years of elections, he had seen little change.
“[There are] the villas and the modern cars, but all those are for the CPP officials, and not for the people,” he said, brushing off the premier’s predictions of war. “Whatever political party wins the poll, we are still the people – any problem within the family, we have to handle it ourselves.”
“I admit that I voted for the CPP in the last two mandates, but this time, I observed that in my village, about half of them support CNRP,” he added. “Some of them dare to show it publicly, and some do it in secret, but we know their minds.”