Commune Residents Brace Themselves for Vote

chamkar leu district, Kompong Cham province – Tham Maline, 21, wrinkled her nose in disgust as she watched a pony cart squelch along Route 222 in Speu village.

“Ever since I was born, I have never seen this road in good shape,” she said. “Candidates always say if they get elected, they will fix this road. But they never do. They break their prom­ise.”

In the wet season, Route 222 is a river of red, sucking muck that slows traffic to a crawl and leaves pedestrians filthy and exhausted. In the dry season, it’s a rutted, dusty mess that leaves a smeary red film on plants, animals and people.

It’s not an unusually bad road by Cambodian standards, but it looms large in the minds of potential voters as the country moves toward its first-ever commune council elections next February.

“The road and the security of the area,” Tham Maline said. “These are issues the commune council should worry about. These affect the peoples’ health and well-being.”

Tham Maline and her husband, Chim Bora, 31, say they don’t know who they will vote for, but their decision will be based on performance, not party.

They are better educated and more prosperous than most of their neighbors; he completed three years at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, while she finished high school.

He’s a supervisor at the nearby Chamkar And­ong Rubber Plantation, while she runs a hairdressing business.

They know what they want, and they will vote for the candidates they think will come closest to providing it.

“They should be hard workers, they should build roads, they should be concerned with community development. The most important thing is, they should not be corrupt,” Chim Bora said.

“We won’t vote for candidates who only want to make themselves rich. We will vote for those we think will do something for the people.,” Tham Maline said.

Route 222 is the boundary line between Speu and Cheyo communes in northern Kompong Cham province, a remote area amid vast rubber plantations and paddies where the rice is turning to gold.

Speu village, bisected by the road, is a beautiful little town of old-style Khmer wooden houses built along sandy lanes edged with flowering shrubs. The boundary means little to the people, who cross back and forth from one commune to the other a dozen times a day.

Sun Sean’s coffee shop is in Cheyo commune, on the south side of the road. But it is the gathering place for Sam Rainsy Party candidates and supporters from both communes.

Opposition party officials in Phnom Penh have declared candidates in Cheyo commune are suffering political intimidation, including the Sept 21 killing of candidate Chhim Leang Sri in nearby O Pek village.

But local officials say that while they don’t yet know the truth behind the killing, political intimidation just isn’t a problem in the area.

“None of the candidates have been threatened. We all know each other here, and we all get along,” Sun Sean said.

A few doors away, at the Cheyo commune election committee headquarters, official Van Va echoed that assessment, saying he knows most of the candidates from the days when he was a principal and teacher at the local high school.

“Most of them are not too well-educated. They don’t have much general knowledge. Most educated people were killed by the Khmer Rouge,” he said.

The three major parties are fielding full slates in both communes, with 18 candidates from each party in Cheyo and 22 in Speu. Poster boards in each headquarters show color photographs of all candidates, with a puzzling detail: Most are wearing the same western-style blue-and-white necktie and suit jacket, including several of the women.

“They all went to the same photographer, and borrowed the same outfit,” Van Va said.

While they may not be sophisticated, they are good people, and they will grow in the job, Van Va said. He said he believes voters and commune officials alike will develop a better understanding of democracy over the next few years.

The pattern in the past has been to ask for something from the central government, and wait more or less patiently until it was delivered, Van Va said. People must now learn how to set goals for themselves, and how to work together to achieve what they want.

“We are all farmers here. There isn’t much business or commerce. People want help developing agriculture to be more productive, and they want better security so they can live their lives in peace,” he said.

Van Va laughed when asked why he was not running for commune council.

“I don’t like the commune job. You’ll get a small dispute between neighbors, over something like a patch of vegetables, that blows up into a big thing and takes the whole commune’s time to solve, because [the complainants] don’t know how to solve it,” he said.

Van Va, who retired from teaching in 1996, said he prefers his non-partisan work for the National Election Committee. Besides, he said, he is old and tired now, and he doesn’t want to destroy his reputation by going into politics.

Commune chief Khat Vanna, 68, said he agrees with Van Va. He has headed Cheyo commune since he was appointed by the CPP in 1985.

He is running for the new commune council, but not because he wants to. The job is a pain.

“You have to solve problems like domestic violence. The husband beats his wife, she runs here for help, he comes after her, and the commune chief has to calm them down,” he said.

It can happen at all hours.

“Sometimes you are up half the night,” he said.

Khat Vanna said he believes the new, democratically elected commune council will have a harder time getting things done than he did. He was assured of support from the central government and could decide virtually unilaterally what was best for the commune, while the new council will have to be much more responsive to the wishes of the voters.

He is only running because his supporters asked him to help the commune move toward a real democracy, Khat Vanna said.

“People here don’t yet understand democracy very well. They will understand better [in future years] as they learn what their rights are and how the system works,” he said.

Take Route 222, for an example. Khat Vanna said he knows people want it repaired, but it’s a far bigger job than one commune can handle. He has asked the central government repeatedly for help, and been told it’s scheduled for repairs next year, perhaps in March.

Won’t that be too late to help his campaign?

His dour face broke into a soft smile.

“I have learned not to worry about my popularity” in more than 20 years as village and commune chief, he says.  Now, “I am old, and I am interested in doing the right thing.”

Security is the second-most cited issue worrying voters here, followed closely by rural development. The violent death of Chhim Leang Sri still resonates more than a month after he was shot to death in O Pek village, just up the road from Speu, during an apparent robbery.

His widow, Huon Mom, said people in Cheyo village settle in for the night now as soon as it gets dark. They used to be out and about as late as 9 pm.

“It’s been more than a month since my husband was killed, and nothing has happened,” she said. Police have increased patrols in the village, but people still don’t feel safe.

Police think three men who disappeared around the time of the shootings are strong suspects, Chamkar Leu district Judiciary Police Chief An Kim Sri said.

One, who police suspect of illegal gun possession, lived about 500 meters from the victim and had a drinking party at his home the afternoon of the shooting, An Kim Sri said.

A second suspect abruptly sold his home two days after the crime and disappeared, with his family; a third has not been seen since the crime, the chief said.

“We think we have about a 40 percent chance of arresting these men,” An Kim Sri said, adding progress is slow because witnesses are afraid of retaliation, and do not always trust the police.

Seng Sokim, the deputy police chief of Kompong Cham province, said the fact that opposition politicians are claiming this as a political killing is slowing the probe down.

“For a common crime, we would have arrested the suspect already, or at least held him for questioning for 48 hours” but the court wants to be certain there is solid evidence in this case, he said.

Sreng Thy, 46, a Funcinpec candidate for Cheyo commune council, said underlying distrust of government institutions is one reason people urged him to run.

“People want me to run because there is too much corruption,” he said, as he packed away the stock from his wife’s dry goods stall at Speu market. “They say government officials solving disputes listen to only one side, and take money.”

Sreng Thy said he has served as chief of Speu village for seven years, and believes he has the ability to do a good job on the commune council.

“The important thing is rural development,” he said.

If elected, he would work to refurbish the commune headquarters, build a hospital and fix the roads.

“We also need a dam, and a canal, to get a steady water supply to the farmers. I would try to get some NGO money in here to get the water project going,” he said.

Even if all three parties win seats on the commune council, he anticipates no difficulties in working together, Sreng Thy said.             “Such a council would bring all different ideas together. This will be a real, grass-roots democracy, going right into the remote countryside,” he added.

Sreng Thy will find that rosy vision a tough sell in one tiny plank shack along Route 222.

“People are poor here, and the farmers can’t grow enough to eat,” said Chhun Khin, 64, who plans to vote. “They promise a lot, but they don’t keep their promises. We don’t want to hear any more promises.”



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