Elections Fine, Poor Communes Say, But Money is Needed

svay leu district, Siem Reap province – Since Yon Khuon was a boy, life has been hard in his village. But since the 1960s, it seems only to have gotten worse. There once was a ce­ment school­house, but that was blown up by the Khmer Rouge. There was a dam that gave them a steady supply of water, but that, too, was destroyed during the war.

People get malaria. Livestock have been dy­ing and no one knows why. Villagers must walk a kilo­meter for water in the dry season and land mines are littered through the forest.

“I want an irrigation system and a dam to stock water,” said Yon Khuon, 74. “The war is over, but the education is low be­cause there is no school and no salary for the teach­er. The teachers have children, but they get little pay. So how can they feed their families?”

Yon Khuon wants a better fu­ture for the children of Kantuot com­­mune, but he doesn’t know when it will come. And he’s not sure the com­mune elections will fix the problems here. In thousands of villages like Kantuot across Cam­bodia, there is a chron­ic lack of money and re­sources that means villagers lack ed­u­ca­tion, have poor health services and little chance to improve their lives.

While the elections may infuse the communes fresh lea­d­ership, they won’t infuse them with mon­ey.

“I heard about the commune elections,” Yon Khuon said, “but I don’t know anything about it.” Likewise, he said, “I have only heard people talk about development. In reality, noth­­ing happens. This village has no development.”

Election organizers and dem­ocracy advocates acknowledge that the commune polls won’t solve many of the problems pla­guing Cambodia. But the hope is that communities will try to solve problems on their own, rath­er than wait for a handout from the gov­ernment.

“It’s an opportunity for people to take control of themselves, to take control of their own problems,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer In­sti­tute of Democracy.

“In some areas, community spi­rit is re­­-em­er­g­ing,” he said. “More and more they do not rely on the auth­orities high up. They do not wait like before.”

Some communes have formed public works committees, with peo­ple pitching in to buy stones for a new road, a water pump for ir­ri­gation or material for a school.

“It’s not fan­tas­tic,” Lao Mong Hay said, “but it’s workable.”

Sak Setha, director general of the Interior Ministry’s administration department, said the government wants to help communities de­velop, but cannot do this without help.

“To have prosperity, it depends on the cooperation among the peo­ple and the commune officials,” he said. “If the people cooperate with the local authority, the development will be faster. But if the people do not cooperate with the local authority, the development will not go ahead.”

Yon Khuon said his village would welcome any kind of help. There are no NGOs working in Kantuot. Even the demining group Halo Trust, which is working in the area, hasn’t yet made it to the village.

Kantuot’s school opened a few months ago for the first time since 1972. But it still needs chairs, desks, books, notebooks and pencils—everything that would make it a school. For now, two teachers instruct two grades on an open-air wooden platform.

“I hope the children will have better lives and better educations,” Yon Khuon said. “I hope.”

Down the road in Khna Krao village, life is much the same. Villagers here also need a school and a well. There is no clinic so they must pay for the 60 km trip to Siem Reap town or wait out the illness at home.

“A lot of people complain, but I don’t know what to do,” said Larch Chhun, 58, the commune chief. “I don’t have any money.”

He asked the district government for help, but “They told me please wait, wait, wait,” he said.

He took over the post after the former commune chief died of illness in January. And he already knows he’s had enough of the job.

“I’m too old to run,” he said. “Let the young people take ov­er.”

(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)




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