Economic Development Key Issue in Koh Kong

koh kong province – Come Feb 3, Chhim Kim Lim plans to ask her friends whom they voted for in the commune council elections. She will use their advice to cast her own ballot because she barely knows the candidates.

“I do not know why I need to vote, and I do not know who I would vote for,” said the 36-year-old mother, sitting with friends at a wooden stall where she sells gas in Koh Kong province.

Her political naivete may be understandable as Cambodia prepares for its first commune council elections in more than 40 years, but consider what her locally elected officials will deal with in coming months:

Just across the street from her house, an empty field soon will be the site of a massive trade zone project with the Thai government, drawing investment from abroad, new factories and jobs for thousands of people.

Just a few kilometers to the west, a 5-year-old international resort, 319-bed hotel and casino built just meters from the Thai border draws wealthy gamblers and vacationers from Bangkok and elsewhere, boosting the local economy. Development continues at a rapid pace along the beach near the casino, as the hotel grows and draws new enterprises.

A few kilometers to the east, a low-slung bridge stretches 1.9-km across a brackish ocean inlet. The $8 million bridge, paid for by the owner of the local casino, Ly Yong Phat, will open April 4 and connect sleepy Koh Kong town with the trade zone and casino area.

That’s not all. Construction continues on a 30-meter-wide road connecting Koh Kong with National Route 4, a road paid for with loans from the casino owner and the Thai government. When it’s finished, the trade zone and the casino, and even Chhim Kim Lim’s gas stand, may soon be stops along the way for traffic cruising from Bangkok to Phnom Penh.

But if development promises to lift peacetime Cambodia from a cycle of poverty, it also brings the peril of crushing small Koh Kong businesses.

Locally elected leaders will need to fight for their constituents as powerful interests reshape the economy and social climate of this border region, where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won a comfortable majority of the votes in the 1993 and 1998 national elections.

It’s not that the development is unwelcome: this is the only region in Cambodia where people say they are worse off today than they were two years ago, according to a 2001 survey by the Asia Foundation. But for people like Chhim Kim Lim, the wealthy interests coming to Koh Kong may bring her only more poverty.

She says the government wants her land for the trade zone project. She claims she paid 400,000 baht (about $8,900) for four  hectares of land, and that the government will force her to sell it to them for 50,000 baht (about $1,100).

“We cannot protest if the government wants this land. The officials will use the power to take our land. So we must hand it over,” she said.

The trade zone might bring jobs, but she has no confidence she will get hired. “I do not believe the factory would employ the local villager here,” sh said. “The casino is employing people from all over the country.”

Chhim Kim Lim’s despair may help explain why so few people registered to vote in Koh Kong province. Aproximately 127,000 live here, and 73,697 are eligible to vote. Yet only 49,247 registered,  about 66 percent of eligible voters. That figure is much lower than the national average of 83 percent reported by the National Election Committee.

Despite low registration numbers, the province enjoys a robust pool of politicians: 1,059 candidates will run in the 33 communes of Koh Kong province, 410 with the Cambodian People’s Party, 380 with Funcinpec and 269 with the Sam Rainsy Party. While roughly 10 percent of the CPP candidates are women, about 17 percent of the Funcinpec and 20 percent of the Sam Rainsy Party candidates are women.

One of the candidates, So Chhun of the Sam Rainsy Party, believes he knows why few people registered. In his commune, 5,099 out of 7,328 eligible voters registered, but some were turned away when registration stations closed earlier than advertised.

“People went fishing and thought registration would be allowed later,” he said.

The local Sam Rainsy Party was decimated by the discovery one year ago that their leader in the Koh Kong region was working for the CPP, according to So Chhun, who said the leader often told people to not make a fuss.

“He was bought by the CPP,” said So Chhun. “When he was chief he did nothing. When candidates came to him to report he would say just wait, don’t do anything without my orders.”

The Sam Rainsy Party fired him, but he has not been replaced, and now So Chhun and another party member share the leadership duties.

So Chhun also claimed local residents distrust the electoral process because of problems with the 1998 balloting.

NEC officials overseeing the voting stations knew the voters personally, and when a person likely to vote for the opposition party asked for their ballot, they were handed one without an official stamp, or one that was dirty or torn, So Chhun charged. He said when it came time to count, the problem ballots were rejected and the Sam Rainsy Party lost many votes.

Those charges were news to Koh Kong province election committee director Neang Chhum.

“I can guarantee nothing like this happened in Koh Kong; we would never have the broken ballot, or the dirty ballot,” he said.

Ballots will be collected at 143 voting stations on Feb 3, and they will be protected by armed soldiers. Neang Chhum said the ballots will be watched around the clock until they are counted, as they were in 1998. Unlike 1998, ballots will be counted at the voting stations rather than taken to a central area for counting.

He expects to announce results Feb 12.

Neang Chhum promised fair elections, and claimed he was free from all political allegiances. He said he resigned from the CPP party seven months ago.

Politicial intimidation has not been common here, according to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections office in Koh Kong town, though someone threw two grenades in the district during the 1998 elections. No one was hurt in either attack.

“Now there is a grass roots election, so we will have to wait and see,” said Khan Kanal, the local Comfrel investigator.

The Comfrel office, which opened in 1998, has spent the last few weeks sponsoring workshops on preventing political intimidation and training political observers. If there are problems, Khan Kanal predicts tey will happen in the first few days of the formal campaign period which began last Friday.

“If the ruling party wins the election then there will be no problems, but if they lose there will be a big problem, SRP’s So Chhun said. “They will not be happy. I feel isolated and it would take a long time for anyone to come here.”

He said he wants international observers to come to Koh Kong. “If there are international observers, then the authorities cannot threaten, cannot scare the people,” he said.

Local Funcinpec officials say they have had little conflict with other political parties, according to Pich Han, third deputy governor of Koh Kong province.

“The relationship is good here. CPP and Funcinpec sometimes have a minor dispute, but we can solve it on our own. I don’t want to have problems with the CPP,” he said. “I have a good cooperation with the CPP governor here [Yuth Phouthang].”

“[The commune council elections] are good because the government promised to reform the local administration and give some power to the grass roots. The people are also happy because they will choose the commune chief, and he will do his best for the people.”

Whoever wins in Koh Kong will have to tackle some major problems. Fishermen must survive even as commercial fishing companies encroach on their traditional fishing ares. The infection rate for HIV is among the highest in the country; according to one NGO,  one in four local policemen and one in ten soldiers are infected.

Underground smuggling thrives in the border region. Police don’t have a lot of power here and struggle to enforce the law, politicians freely admit.

The region’s hallmark mangroves may be submerged under rising ocean waters in 100 years if current global warming trends continue, say environmentalists. The mangroves are already under increasing strain as commercial shrimp farms displace native fish populations and destroy important breeding grounds for a variety of species.

Yet none of these issues are as important as clean drinking water, said So Chhun, who is promising clean water to his commune voters if he wins., Clean drinking water is either the first or second most important local issue almost everywhere in the nation, according to an Asia Foundation survey.

Pich Han said Funcinpec believes the issues that matter most to people are roads and transportation, followed by clean water and a health center.

CPP candidates will focus on fishing, tourism and land use, according to Koh Kong province second deputy governor Chem Him.

“The water is not such a big issue because the provincial authorities have provided it already and people have access to the water.” he said. “There is not enough yet.”

If commune candidates raise the issue of clean drinking water, they will not be able to provide it by themselves, Chem Him pointed out. The national government would have to provide funds to dig a well or build a treatment plant.

Whatever happens, the commune elections will be an education for the people of Koh Kong province. Villager Ly Chhiek, 39, said he has little idea what to expect come Feb 3.

“I do not know what the commune elections are for because they have never happened before,” he said.

Funcinpec carried the region in 1998 where he and his rice farming neighbors live. There were no problems or intimidation. All three major politicial parties in Cambodia have nearby offices.

His remote village of Tamkon, located along the road from Koh Kong town to National Road 4, is accessible only by a rugged dirt road. That will soon change, when the massive road project inching east from Koh Kong reaches his village later this year.

The road may bring its own troubles, but for his big problem is finding enough clean drinking water for his family. He relies on rain collected in a barrel.

If the elections truly bring some measure of local control, the people will ask for a well, Ly Chhiek said.

“We would request the commune council to supply us with a clean water well. But we do not know yet how they can answer or not,” he said.



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