Editor’s note: This is the first in a series that will follow the progress of one of Cambodia’s 1,621 newly elected commune governments.
sa’ang district, Kandal Province – Chhoeung Chhor is the chief of Roka Khpuos commune, a mostly rural community about an hour’s drive south of Phnom Penh.
He was the chief before the Feb 3 elections—Cambodia’s first-ever nationwide elections at the commune level—and, as is the case in the majority of the 1,621 communes, he is still the chief.
Chhoeung Chhor, 48, is a stocky man with large red-framed glasses and a wide face. He has curly hair and smokes Alain Delon cigarettes. The people, he says, need him.
“I am tired,” he says. “I want others to have a chance to be leader. But the people believe in me and in the CPP.
“They believe I will develop the commune.”
That is the task awaiting Chhoeung Chhor and his fellow council members. On the nine-member council, four, including the chief, are members of the ruling CPP. Three are members of Funcinpec, and two come from the Sam Rainsy Party.
This could make for an interesting mix. No one party has a majority. If the Funcinpec and CPP members vote on opposite sides of a given issue, the minority Sam Rainsy Party members could function as a swing bloc to determine the result. Or Funcinpec could cast the deciding vote on issues that divide the CPP and Sam Rainsy Party members.
At stake is the future of a diverse, troubled commune. Most of Roka Khpuos’ 9,826 residents are poor farmers. Others are subsistence fishermen on the Bassac River, and some work at a garment facory in the commune.
In interviews, the council members say they want to improve people’s access to clean drinking water, modernize agricultural techniques, reduce crime and corruption, and build clinics and roads. Those goals are the same as in practically every other rural commune in Cambodia.
But Roka Khpuos commune has its own unique problem. A dam downriver in another commune backs up the river and floods Roka Khpuos’s rice fields. By the time the water is low enough to plant rice, it is the end of March and the rainy season, which threatens to ruin the young crop, is on its way.
In the coming months and years, the eight men and one woman on this council will tackle those problems. Individually, they are vague on what the solutions will be. But that’s the idea: The solutions they devise will be collective, the combined work of three political parties.
If they fail in the eyes of the voters, they could lose their jobs.
The council’s first meeting takes place one early morning in a wooden shack with an earth and stone floor and a brick roof. Next door is the commune’s CPP headquarters. Inside are a couple of wood benches, on which the council members sit, a few folding chairs in the center of the room, and a dusty, drawerless wooden cabinet. The walls are decorated with pages from a 1996 calendar.
Chhoeung Chhor sits at his own table, draped with a flowered plastic tablecloth, at the front of the room. Above him hang a Cambodian flag and large pictures of the King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath
To his right sit Ek Oeun, 52, and Em Sam Oeun, 51, of Funcinpec, and CPP members Ham Sokun, 48, Tim Huon, 60, and Sreng Thy, 46. Ham Sokun is the council’s only female member.
Mit Thoeun, 33, the commune clerk, sits at a table to Chhoeung Chhor’s left. Along the wall next to the clerk’s desk are Muong Morn, 58, the Funcinpec first deputy chief; Orch Heang, 51, the Sam Rainsy Party second deputy; and Sam Rainsy Party member Rus Reit, 57.
The meeting begins with a short statement by the chief. “The people have voted for the CPP because they want the CPP to develop the commune,” he says. “We also have the Funcinpec first deputy chief and the Sam Rainsy Party second deputy.
“As the commune chief I want to inform you that we have to cooperate to help the people of our commune achieve progress. We must not look for faults in each other or accuse each other.”
Chhoeung Chhor then begins to read from a thick sheaf of papers. It is the guidelines from the Ministry of Interior for the drafting of the councils’ internal regulations, their first task.
“Chapter One, Article One. The commune councilors must conduct a meeting at least once per month…”
The chief reads the entire packet. It takes about an hour. At one point, the chief’s cell phone rings; the clerk, who had been hunched over his notes, answers it and rushes outside to handle the call.
A little later a khaki-uniformed policeman walks casually into the room and pulls up a folding chair next to Sreng Thy, looking over the council member’s shoulder at the document.
Except for a little bit of noise from the policeman’s radio, the chief’s reading is not disturbed. About 15 minutes later, the policeman leaves.
Chhoeung Chhor finishes his reading. The clerk passes out pieces of paper. Each has two boxes—yes or no—that the members can tick to indicate their votes.
Orch Heang, the second deputy, says he wants to change the wording of Article 18, which says the council must choose three “people’s representatives” to be voices of the community. “In the article it says three people, but I think we should change it to five people,” he said.
“Please read that article again,” says Sreng Thy, “I don’t understand what he is talking about.” The clerk reads the article again.
Orch Heang raises objections to a few other articles, and a few other members tentatively step into the debate, which is far from lively.
The chief then gives a longish speech in an indulgent tone of voice. He says these changes to the rules can be discussed in a future meeting; for now, the council should vote on the existing rules.
But Orch Heang continues to object. He is a thin, crooked-toothed man with metal-rimmed glasses who gestures when he talks. The clerk interrupts, trying to clarify.
While Orch Heang is still trying to make his point, the clerk collects the votes and announces that the Ministry of Interior guidelines have been approved intact, by a vote of 7-2. “According to the vote, this regulation is acceptable and effective from now on,” he announces.
“I don’t agree with—” Orch Heang says.
“The decision has been made by vote,” the clerk says.
These arguments are polite, not angry. Several council members now begin talking at once.
Finally the chief intervenes. “We will discuss these things at the next monthly meeting,” he