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Cambodians rally ahead of polls as US warns of intimidation

Supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party sit on a truck as it drives through the crowd of an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) rally during the first day of country's commune election campaign at outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Saturday, May 20, 2017. Cambodian political parties begun their first day of election campaigning for local commune election. The two-week campaign will kick off May 20 and end June 2 this year. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party sit on a truck as it drives through the crowd of an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) rally during the first day of country's commune election campaign at outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Saturday, May 20, 2017. Cambodian political parties begun their first day of election campaigning for local commune election. The two-week campaign will kick off May 20 and end June 2 this year. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia's main opposition party believes it has momentum on its side in next month's local elections, which will gauge the support for Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of national polls next year.

The U.S. State Department called on the government to avoid threats and political intimidation as the two-week campaigning for the June 4 communal elections started Saturday with tens of thousands of supporters of Hun Sen's ruling party and the main opposition party flooding the streets of the capital.

Hun Sen has ruled for three decades, and he has warned of civil war if voters do not support his ruling Cambodian People's Party. In the last communal elections in 2012, his party received 60 per cent of the vote compared to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's 30.6 per cent .

But the opposition now says it has a better chance of winning after it nearly upset the ruling party in general elections in 2013, triggering its boycott of the legislature that ended with the opposition returning to parliament after it struck a deal with the longtime ruler.

A State Department spokeswoman for East Asia, Alicia Edwards, said in Washington that the U.S. was urging the Cambodian government to "guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation" and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens.

Cambodia's defence minister has reportedly warned that the army will "smash the teeth" of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party.

Speaking to supporters, opposition leader Kem Sokha said that his party would win the local and general elections but he appealed to party members to be patient.

Although accused of violence and intimidation of opponents, Hun Sen could also take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge's regime in the 1970s. Hun Sen left the movement that was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and executions before it was toppled in 1979.

He did not participate in the campaigning Saturday, but in a message he said that his Cambodian People's Party had received strong backing from the people in the last 38 years since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime and brought peace and political stability.

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