ek phnom district, Battambang province – Six weeks ago, about 120 disgruntled fishermen in the floating village of Kbal Taol on the edge of the Tonle Sap set fire to the local fisheries office.
But lingering anger at local officials over unresolved fishing lot disputes didn’t seem to carry over at the polls Sunday, according to voters and officials. As they did in the 1998 national elections, the CPP expected to win handily over Funcinpec. The Sam Rainsy Party did not run candidates in Koh Chivaing commune, although Funcinpec did.
“We have very little hope of winning this council election. What I want is for the election to be fair and just,” said Funcinpec observer Lach Ken.
There are about 270 Khmer families and 200 ethnic Vietnamese families living in Kbal Taol. Six hundred Khmer people registered to vote, while 300 Vietnamese were registered, officials said.
Polls did not open until 7:40 am, but voting went smoothly for the rest of the morning. Almost half of the commune had voted by 10 am. Because some ethnic Vietnamese apparently did not understand Khmer-language instructions, there was some confusion about how to check the ballot and deposit it into ballot boxes. Officials were patient and helpful resolving the problems.
Everything floats here—a pagoda, police station, the school where Sunday’s voting took place, even a merry-go-round. Some villagers took the election as an opportunity to sell noodles, rice porridge and sugarcane to those waiting to vote.
Several voters said the village was in need of a health care center. But everyone here makes his or her living as fishermen, and voters said they were most interested in getting fishing grounds that aren’t 15 km out on the lake and dense with aquatic vegetation.
Most fishermen need to cut through a privately owned lot as they travel each morning to their own fishing ground. Fishermen said the almost 1,000 hectares of new fishing grounds granted to them by the government a year ago were supposed to improve their lives.
Instead, the new fishing grounds have only made life more difficult, and the Dec 15 fire was in part caused by villagers’ frustrations over waiting so long for a resolution. Four villagers were arrested in connection with the fire and another four suspects from the village are still at large.
Ka Por, 50, said many villagers are still not able to catch enough fish to feed their families. Still, she indicated she had cast her vote for the CPP on Sunday.
The new council will try to solve the fishing lot dispute, said Saing San, a 56-year-old local businessman and crocodile farmer who worked as a CPP observer Sunday. “It is still a problem,” he said. “The poor people want some fishing grounds near the village.”
Local fishermen originally welcomed the new lot system, but now say it has been implemented ineffectively. They claim the order actually made it easier for large commercial fishing concerns to bribe local authorities.
Lach Ken said there is still a lot of illegal fishing by commercial fishermen. “If the old leaders are elected, I don’t think the problem can be solved,” he said.
On Saturday evening, election officials went house-to-house in a small canoe reminding voters via loudspeaker about Sunday’s election. They worried that families would go to the lake early in the morning to fish and not vote.
Also on Saturday, CPP officials traveled around handing out rice to some villagers, according to one official.
Yoeung Yang Thanh, a 35-year-old ethnic Vietnamese fisherman, was the first voter to arrive at the poll station Sunday morning. The 15-year resident said he was hoping to get back to work early.
Although the village is remote, some television and radio signals do reach it. Meng Toeng, 28, said that is how he received most election information. He said he would vote for “the old leaders.”
Sum Nam, 56, cited the CPP’s role in freeing the country from the Khmer Rouge regime. “The old leaders are good, although they also have some mistakes,” he said, especially concerning the fishing grounds.