Cambodian National Rescue Party campaigns in Battambang

BATTAMBANG, CAMBODIA – the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, has been campaigning vigorously since party leader Sam Rainsy returned from a four-year self-imposed exile last Friday.

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Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy addressing supporters at a rally in Battambang.

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Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua

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A section of the huge crowd gathered near Psar Nath to hear Sam Rainsy speak.

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CNRP supporters listening to Sam Rainsy.

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Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy

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Young CNRP supporters on the roadside in provincial Battambang.

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Young CNRP supporters who were part of the rally.

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Young CNRP supporters who were part of the rally.

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Young CNRP supporters who were part of the rally.

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Young CNRP supporters who were part of the rally.

Mr Rainsy along with high-level party members Mr Kem Sokha and Ms Mu Sochua, have embarked on a rapid journey through many of Cambodia’s provincial centres before the election this Sunday.

On July 23, the convoy stopped in Battambang and drew a large crowd.

After Mr Rainsy spoke to the supporters massed outside Psar Nath, the convoy travelled through the countryside to spread its message of change for Cambodia.

Mr Rainsy left Cambodia in 2009 after being found guilty of charges brought against him by the Prime Minister, Mr Hun Sen. The charges, connected with the moving of border markers between Cambodia and Vietnam, are believed by many to be politically motivated.

Last July, the Human Rights Party led by Kem Sokha merged with the Sam Rainsy Party to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

Earlier this month, Mr Hun Sen petitioned for a royal pardon to be issued for Mr Rainsy so he could return to Cambodia and campaign for his party.

Because he was found guilty of criminal charges, Mr Rainsy was made ineligible to contest a seat in the election. Despite petitions to have Mr Rainsy’s name reinstated, he will not be permitted to run for his own party.

The ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, headed by Mr Hun Sen, is expected to win the polls on Sunday. The party has been in government since 1985.

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Cambodian opposition MP starts election campaign

BATTAMBANG, CAMBODIA – Cambodian opposition party Member of Parliament Mu Sochua commenced her campaign in Battambang in the run-up to the commune elections to be held early next month.

Mu Sochua, Sam Rainsy Party Member of Parliament

Mu Sochua meets the public in Battambang.

Mu Sochua meets the public in Battambang.

Mu Sochua leading supporters in a song outside a market in Battambang.

Sam Rainsy Party MP Mu Sochua

Supporters of Mu Sochua riding through Battambang.

Mu Sochua in her campaign vehicle on the way to a rally at a temple on the outskirts of Battambang.

Sam Rainsy Party supporters carry the party flag.

The campaign convoy started near Psar Nath, one of Battambang’s main markets, and wound its way through the streets. Mu Sochua stopped a few times at other streetside markets to give speeches and meet with local people before moving to a temple several kilometres from town for a refreshment break.

Supporters wearing white t-shirts and caps printed with the Sam Rainsy Party logo took part in the convoy, riding motor scooters, cars and trucks through the outskirts of Battambang to the temple in Ek Phnom district

After the break, the convoy resumed its trip through the province.

In 1972, when Mu Sochua was 18 years old, she was sent to live in Paris by her mother. The war in Vietnam was spilling over the border into Cambodia, causing many people to flee the country.

Two years after leaving her homeland, Sochua moved to San Francisco to pursue an education at the Berkeley campus of the University of California as well as San Francisco State University.

The Cambodian capital Phnom Penh fell to the control of the Khmer Rouge the following year, 1975.

When the Vietnamese removed the Khmer Rouge from power in early 1979, Cambodian refugees poured out of the region, with many settling in the United States. While studying in California Sochua was doing work with refugees from all over the world, and says that she spent many days at San Francisco Airport in the hope that one day she would she her family step off the plane.

That wish was never granted. Sochua never saw her family again.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a masters in Social Work, Sochua returned to Cambodia in 1990 to assist in the rebuilding of her country, a task she describes as “paying (her) dues”.

Mu Sochua was a member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party until January of 2004 when she left to join the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. While in the Cambodian People’s Party, Mu Sochua was Minister for Womens’ Affairs, a post she held from 1998 until her resignation from the government party.

During that time, she fought extensively for women’s rights in rural Cambodia and battled human trafficking. She is a renowned advocate for human rights, and this is the platform upon which her political campaign is built.

All Aboard The Battambang Bamboo Express

BATTAMBANG, CAMBODIA – With the upgrade of the rail line which runs between Battambang and Phnom Penh, a testament to Cambodian ingenuity will soon come to an end.

The bamboo train, a homebrew rail service that provides transport between many of the villages around Battambang, is scheduled to be stopped next month.

The villagers took it upon themselves to get around the problem of transporting goods and people by taking over the disused rail track running through the villages. A group of people began building their own platforms made of bamboo and wood, attaching wheels from old tanks, and running them along the track.

Previously, these bamboo platforms were powered by someone using a pole to push it along the track. These days, locomotion is provided by a small 5 horsepower motor connected to the rear set of wheels by a fan belt.

The bamboo train (each vehicle known locally as a “norry”) moves not-so-smoothly along the dilapidated track at up to 40 km/h. Locals use the norrys to transport livestock and grain to market, or to their homes. It’s become quite a tourist attraction, with visitors enjoying the scenic ride as well.

Given the number of norrys travelling on the single line, a system of etiquette has arisen when two norrys travelling in the opposite direction meet.

The norry with a lighter load is picked up off the track o the heavier-laden norry can continue on. The pilot of the more loaded norry helps to take the lighter one off the track and put it back on again.

Despite the stretch of track (which goes all the way to Phnom Penh) being one of few sections of rail to survive the Khmer Rouge regime, it’s in very shoddy shape. Much of the track is warped, and the joins are so rough that running over them can be a boneshaking experience. Until November 2008, there was a proper train service between Phnom Penh and Battambang. However, the track is in such disrepair that the 275 kilometer journey could take up to 14 hours. A slow train indeed. The service has been cancelled, probably because of the disintegration of the track, but also due to the impending repair work that will allow regular trains to run at a more regular speed.

Unfortunately for the villagers around Battambang, such progress will mean and end to their ad hoc transport system. A small norry construction industry has sprung up, and there are numerous small stores along parts of the track that act as rest stops for norry passengers and their drivers.

Oun and his wife Sem run one such stall about 7 kilometers from “norry central”, where most visitors catch the bamboo train. They offer shade and cool refreshments to travellers.

Given the highly unofficial status of the bamboo railway, it’s inevitable in a way that it would one day finish. However, it’s sad to see something this unique (not to mention useful to the local people as well as providing jobs for many) come to an end.