SIHANOUKVILLE – Opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s whirlwind tour of Cambodia’s provinces ahead of the national election on July 28 picked up some steam Sunday with an excited crowd of at least 5,000 filling the street in front of Sihanoukville’s Independence Park.
But it followed a modest start to the tour, which departed on Saturday from Kompong Speu City with about 1,500 party faithful on trucks and motorbikes passing through towns where just about the only people cheering on Mr. Rainsy were the ones who came with him.
The locals who looked on in silence were a measure of how much work he has left to do in rural areas, where the majority of Cambodians live and where the national election will be won.
But in Sihanoukville on Sunday afternoon, the opposition could at least take heart in a strong crowd that cheered its way through a light rain, suggesting that the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president’s appeal may still reach past Phnom Penh, where well over 100,000 supporters turned out to welcome him on his return to the country on Friday.
“I have come back to Cambodia to lead the CNRP to victory,” said Mr. Rainsy, who secured a Royal Pardon earlier this month after years of living in self-imposed exile in France avoiding an 11-year prison sentence on convictions he contends were politically motivated.
“The dictatorship has lasted more than 30 years; it’s time to head toward democracy. We are writing a new page of Cambodian history. We have to rescue Cambodia,” he told his assembled supporters.
Hitting on what has been a constant theme at every stop, Mr. Rainsy lashed out at Vietnamese immigration and investment in Cambodia.
“It is dangerous now because the Khmer leave and the yuon still come over,” he said. “More and more yuon come to grab our land and catch our fish in Boeng Tonle Sap and in the sea. The yuon log our trees and take our jobs. The yuon take advantage of the Khmer because the current authorities protect the yuon.”
Standing ready at Mr. Rainsy’s side, CNRP vice president Kem Sokha took over, aiming barbed remarks at Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Khmer Rouge past.
“On July 28, the prime minister is expired,” Mr. Sokha said to loud cheers from the audience. “If you give your vote to people with bloody hands, Cambodia will keep bleeding. If you vote for the former Khmer Rouge, the dictatorship will come back.”
Touching on more of their campaign’s regular themes, Mr. Sokha promised to develop the country, invest more in education and health care and combat the country’s rampant corruption.
“Is it corrupt?” he asked. “Does it smell? If it smells, don’t use the smelly thing any more.”
They were also joined at the rally by Prince Sisowath Thomico, who is running with the CNRP for Preah Sihanouk province’s single National Assembly seat.
Watching from the park, Kim Thoeun—a 33-year-old tuk-tuk driver waving a Cambodian flag and clad in a CNRP hat and shirt—was thrilled to see Mr. Rainsy back in Cambodia.
“I’m so happy he came back,” he said after the rally. “I’m happy because he’s going to get rid of corruption. Now that he’s here I have to believe him.”
A longtime Rainsy supporter, Mr. Thoeun said even friends who had voted for the CPP in the past were converting to the CNRP “because there is so much corruption.”
But cities like Sihanoukville are where the opposition typically does best. To make major gains in the provinces, it will need to win over voters like Chhay Chanthou.
Mr. Rainsy’s stump speech outside a market in Takeo province just across the border from Kompong Speu on Saturday made little impression on the canned goods vendor, who plans to cast her vote for Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP yet again.
“I love [Mr. Hun Sen] because he builds schools, roads and pagodas; it’s development,” she said. “When people ask for something, he builds it for them.”
Ms. Chanthou saw little hope in Mr. Rainsy taking over.
“It’s impossible,” she said. “The people believe in Hun Sen.”
The CPP currently holds 90 of the National Assembly’s 123 seats and is widely expected to hold on to a comfortable majority.
Mr. Rainsy’s tour of the provinces continues today with stops in Kompong Chhnang, Pursat and Battambang provinces before returning to Phnom Penh.
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