POIPET, BANTEAY MEANCHEY PROVINCE, CAMBODIA - Members of Cambodia’s opposition have spent the past few days crossing Southeast Asia in an attempt to return to Cambodia, a return promised by their exiled leader, Sam Rainsy.
Their destination is Poipet, a northwestern border town known for its casinos and a key conduit for trade with Thailand.
An uneasy calm will welcome Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members, if they are able to reach Poipet, where mixed security forces have garrisoned the town in anticipation of Sam Rainsy’s possible return.
In Chan Kiri village, But Pov is busy making breakfast for her family: fried chicken and radishes. The mother of two works at a shoe factory across the border in Thailand, along with her husband, Kat Buny, and her son, Ny Bunat.
They have decided to take a few days off from work. But Pov said she’s worried there will be unrest in the town, as evidenced by the heightened security presence in Poipet.
“Other people are also scared. So am I,” But Pov, 37, said.
The government has not given estimates for the number of security personnel deployed in the small border town, as it has for Phnom Penh, where a 20,000-strong mixed security force will police the capital for the Independence Day weekend, and if Sam Rainsy returns.
VOA Khmer reporters said there were hundreds of security personnel stationed across the border town, with residents rubbing shoulders with armed personnel as they go about their daily chores.
Banners displaying photos of 18 senior CNRP leaders are plastered across the town, calling for their arrest. The railway tracks to Thailand have also been barricaded with barbed wire.
The extreme security measures have made But Pov’s husband, Kat Buny, anxious and reluctant to speak to the media. He is worried any comments can be misconstrued by the authorities, who have characterized Sam Rainsy’s return as an attempted coup.
But Pov said she is keeping abreast of the political developments. On Thursday, Sam Rainsy was prevented from taking a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, his colleague Mu Sochua and two youth activists were detained at the Kuala Lumpur airport before being released, and at least 45 opposition supporters and former officials have been charged with plotting the alleged coup.
“People here are afraid of talking,” But Pov added.
But Pov’s neighbor Eng Leang is facing this fear. Eng Leang, who sells groceries in the same village, has been called incessantly by her younger sister, Eng Ry, to return home to Battambong province.
Eng Leang said her sister was worried there could be problems at the border if Sam Rainsy returns, but she couldn’t leave her grandchildren.
“I can’t go since I have to take care of a lot of grandchildren,” the 57-year-old grandmother of nine said. “I am a bit scared. But I can’t go.”
Fear and anxiety
Others in the town are reluctant to speak, all expressing fear and anxiety over the security measures taken in their town.
“People are quiet. No one dares to talk,” said Sar Sarorn, 40, a worker pulling handcarts full of goods from Thailand to Cambodia.
Another villager, Mao Mab, 50, said he is very careful of what he says, despite agreeing to speak to VOA Khmer.
“I can talk about my business, but not related to politics,” he said.
Closer to the border, Ra Chantha sells fruit from a cart and can see police forces deployed nearby. While she needs the money from her daily sales, she has decided to stay away Saturday.
“I will stop selling on November 9, since I am afraid,” Ra Chantha, also a mother of two, said. “We don’t know what happens, but there are a lot of forces.”
Eng Chhai Eang, deputy president of the CNRP, said the mixed forces were deployed to threaten and intimidate the party’s supporters.
For now, all the political maneuvering is happening overseas. Cambodia is leaning on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to prevent the opposition from returning to Cambodia, but at the same time saying the government wants to arrest them as fugitives.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued Thursday that the Cambodian government should permit exiled opposition leaders to return to Cambodia and freely resume political activities.
“This is the culmination of three months of aggressive harassment, arrests and attacks on the CNRP and its members, which is really about preventing the restoration of multiparty democracy in Cambodia,” said Brad Adams, the executive director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
Another reason for the heavy security presence, however, could be the increasing political support for the CNRP in the area. Two of the three communes in and around Poipet were won by the opposition in 2017.
This is evidenced by some people VOA Khmer spoke to who supported Sam Rainsy’s return, though on peaceful terms.
“It is good if they get along with each other, shaking hands,” said grocery seller Ra Chantha.
And the factory worker from Chan Kiri village, But Pov, was a little more explicit in her support of the opposition, adding that the aim was to get free and fair elections.
“A country can progress only if there is an opposition party,” she said, returning to making breakfast for her children.
This article originated in VOA’s Khmer service.