A New Commune Council Finds Cooperation its First Challenge

o’smach commune, Oddar Meanchey pro­vince – During the day, the newly built casinos can be seen from the villages of shacks and open sewers where most of O’Smach’s residents now live. At night, the casinos’ lights glow on the horizon.

In the last three years, the two casinos on the hill have come to dominate life in this former stronghold of the Funcinpec resistance movement. From land disputes to increased border trade to the possibility of more jobs, the casinos symbolize many of the problems and issues facing the commune and its newly formed council.

One kilometer away, in a wooden building built on borrowed land, O’Smach’s commune councilors hold their meetings. Sitting on a mat on the floor, the three CPP members and two members each from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party have so far only debated internal regulations and where the location of the council’s office should be.

Building a health care center and a new sewage system, or finding a solution to the shortage of clean water, will have to wait until the councilors find their feet.

Compromising and consulting with each other are skills the councilors have not yet mas­tered. For now, the councilors remain suspicious of each other, and there is confusion about how a commune government is actually run.

“We do not get along well. This is a new experience for us,” CPP commune council chief Ean Lieng said. “We need time to come together. We do not understand well about the laws and regulations.”

Among council members, the suspicion begins with Ean Lieng, according to Funcin­pec councilor Or Sophat.

Interior Ministry-appointed clerk Theam Sarath and Ean Lieng often meet in private, discussing commune business and making decisions without asking for the input of other councilors, Or Sophat said. They often withhold information, he said.

“I am not allowed to work as a leader of the commune. I am like a scarecrow,” said Sam Rainsy Party councilor Nuth Reap. “All the power is just with the one CPP man. He doesn’t delegate, and he isn’t transparent.”

The commune’s biggest problem is land, according to Or Sophat. And Ean Lieng and Theam Sarath have personally benefited by issuing the commune’s most valuable land titles in secret to high-ranking government and military officials, Or Sophat claims.

Ean Lieng denies this. A party official from the provincial capital who moved to O’Smach after the fighting between Funcinpec and CPP ended in 1998, he said the military has been very powerful in O’Smach. They are the ones who kicked the villagers off the land along the main roads and gave it to top government and military officials, he claimed.

The two casinos and a clean, well-built market now sit on that land. There are rumors that another two casinos will be built to further serve the Thai tourists who cross the border to gamble for a few hours at weekends.

The casinos brought roads and an electrical system to O’Smach’s villages. But the commune does not expect to receive any tax revenue from the casinos, Ean Lieng said. So while the casinos make money and get richer, the commune may continue to get poorer.

About 200 families—many of whom were kicked off the land the casinos now occupy—now live in shanties along a small side road. They have been given new plots of land to farm, but it is infested with land mines, villagers claim.

There are just a few ways to make a living here: run a small roadside shop, cut wood in the forest or cross into Thailand. Fewer than 20 of the commune’s 4,000 residents now work in the casinos, according to Or Sophat.

“The people here are very poor. They are almost starving,” he said.

Border trade is the best way to lift people out of poverty in O’Smach, said provincial Governor Lay Virak. Now, the border is open just three days a week, but that could increase to seven days a week in the next year.

The economic benefits of increased trade, however, could be offset by a parallel increase in smuggling and the trafficking of women, children and drugs. Officials here worry that O’Smach will become another border boomtown, with a sordid, wild west feel similar to Poipet’s.

“The casinos brought some jobs and development” Or Sophat said. “But the problems will also come to O’Smach.”

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.