The entryway to a Buddhist temple in Cambodia' Kampong Cham province, June 2017. Photo: Erin Handley

Under bright lights on the outskirts of Cambodia’s Kampong Cham town, four local opposition leaders raised their arms and held their hands together in a silhouette of small peaks.

That was back in June 2017, when the then main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was basking in electoral triumph.

The party had just won more than twice the number of communes in the province than its ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) rivals, led by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen. It was an electoral result that cemented Kampong Cham as an opposition stronghold.

Then, the commune elections were viewed at the time as a barometer of voter sentiment ahead of national elections to be held the following year.

Newly elected commune chief Hak Chanthan was thrilled at the CNRP’s resounding victory in his province. “We are very excited. We feel like we have big muscles,” he said at the time.

A year later, that democratic thrill is gone. Now, he’s afraid to talk to journalists on the phone, which authorities are known to tap. “I stopped being involved with politics and this issue. I do not want to say anything. In short, we no longer exist,” he said, before hanging up on a recent call from Asia Times.

Cambodia National Rescue Party politician Hak Chanthan (2-L) celebrates his election win at June 2017 commune polls, Kampong Cham. Photo: Erin Handley

In just one year, the CNRP’s once jubilant hopes have been dashed. Chanthan, like hundreds of other commune chiefs across the country, were stripped of their titles after the Supreme Court – headed by a ranking CPP member – last year dissolved the party on charges of fomenting a revolution aimed at toppling Hun Sen’s regime.

The CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, is now jailed on what are widely viewed as spurious charges of treason in a remote prison facility near the Vietnamese border. Waves of opposition activists and CNRP members have fled the country amid the crackdown.

The CNRP’s Kampong Cham headquarters, where the air was electric as its members celebrated their democratic gains into the night last year, is now a repair shop for cars.

Kampong Cham is a microcosm of the despair of as many as three million Cambodians who previously voted for the party. They say they have been denied a credible choice at tomorrow’s July 29 election.

Once the nation’s largest province, Kampong Cham carries political weight as the constituency of both Kem Sokha and former opposition leader Sam Rainsy. It is also the home province of authoritarian ruler Hun Sen.

“Kampong Cham is a symbolic province. It used to be a CPP stronghold,” Sam Rainsy said, noting it’s history as a bellwether province for emerging trends across the country. “Now CNRP supporters have to adopt a low profile, but they remain determined to push for a democratic change.”

Before banning the CNRP, the government was involved in more subtle electoral tinkering designed at least in part to secure more votes for the CPP. That included cleaving the province in half and renaming the western part Tbong Khmum.

Voters at Kampong Cham’s commune elections in June 2017. Photo: Erin Handley

In 2013, the CNRP took an unprecedented 10 seats to the CPP’s eight in the then-combined Kampong Cham. Redrawing the lines, however, would have reversed that result through gerrymandering, even with the wave of support the CNRP enjoyed in 2017. But such political intricacies have become meaningless since the CNRP’s dissolution.

Hun Sen and his inner circle regularly threaten that voting down the CPP would inevitably result in civil war. Ruling party officials on the ground, meanwhile, continue a systematic campaign of threats and intimidation, which has ramped up ahead of Sunday’s election to combat CNRP calls for a ballot boycott.

With a CPP victory assured, all eyes will be on voter turnout. Voters in Kampong Cham – and across the country – are feeling official pressure, with those advocating an election boycott being slapped with fines of up to US$5,000.

In one remote village, locals were recently confronted by a cluster of CPP supporters urging them to vote in the election and warning that essential services, like birth certificates and other necessary administrative documents, could be withheld if their fingers remain un-inked on election day.

Others were told a vote for the CPP would be good for business, they said.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen waves during a CPP commune election campaign rally, Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

A staunch CNRP supporter in Kampong Cham who asked to be known only by his surname Kong, said he and other supporters were down and out in the run-up to the polls.

“I feel very sad. A lot of supporters in the country voted for the CNRP to have a seat in the National Assembly and they haven’t completed their works before the next election. Now we can’t do any action,” he said. “I feel so much regret about this. It’s very much worse now, this situation.”

One former elected CNRP commune council member, who asked to be referred to by his surname Sang for fear of possible reprisals, was stripped of his position after the party was disbanded and has been under close state surveillance ever since.

Sang said a friend confided to him that he was asked by the local village chief to observe Sang’s activities and report back. He warned Sang to “be careful” when meeting with former CNRP supporters in his home.

“We just drink tea or coffee and chit-chat because we are friends. I haven’t done anything wrong and I haven’t made any color revolution,” Sang said, referring to the government’s accusation that was used to justify the CNRP’s dissolution.

One CNRP-supporting labor unionist, who also requested anonymity due to fears of reprisals, recently defected to the CPP after facing legal threats and harassment. Small rising suns – the logo of the CNRP – are still affixed to a glass cabinet in his home.

Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters before the party’s dissolution at a June 2, 2017 campaign rally in Phnom Penh. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“Before I defected, the local authorities kept monitoring my activity,” he said. “I was so stressed, I just stayed inside the house. My wife would not let me leave the house after dark.”

The unionist recalls one particularly chilling incident after he organized a protest with the CNRP where a car followed him closely, sped up, overtook him and then stopped abruptly in the middle of he road.

He suspected the driver was trying to injure him – or worse – by manufacturing an accident on Cambodia’s already notoriously dangerous roads. After he asked to join the CPP, the harassment stopped, he said.

Than Sorith, a member of Kampong Cham’s working group and one of the few people willing to use his full name when speaking with media in the current climate of fear, said such harassment is a well-worn CPP strategy: targeting one to instil fear in a 100. It’s a tactic the party is also using to coerce voter turnout at Sunday’s election.

“For the first three days after the [CNRP’s] dissolution, I could not sleep,” Sorith said. “We really expected the CNRP to win the [2018] election…The dream is gone.”

Additional reporting by Mech Dara

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