romdoul district, Svay Rieng province – Neang Vanna’s house is indistinguishable from the other houses along a single-lane dirt track off the main road from Svay Rieng town. Shaded by bamboo, her front yard is piled with the dried, threshed stalks of this year’s rice crop.
Neang Vanna, standing and smiling in the middle of her yard, seems indistinguishable from the villagers who live in the houses around her.
But she is different. Neang Vanna is chief of Svay Chek commune, the only woman in Svay Rieng province to hold that office.
She, along with every other commune leader in the country, now faces for the first time the possibility of losing that post, which, in her case, she has been holding since 1981.
When the country goes to the polls for Cambodia’s first-ever commune elections Feb 3, the accomplishments of the current chiefs will be weighed against the potential of new candidates.
So while Neang Vanna farms alongside her fellow villagers, worrying with them about the weather and the crop, there are many other matters weighing on her mind.
Birth spacing, death from AIDS, education for her commune’s children—all of these are issues that concern her.
“As a woman leader, my job may not be as easy, but my planning has to be respected by the lower officials,” Neang Vanna said.
It is still very much a man’s world in much of the countryside, making her job in the commune that much harder.
“In their hearts, they seem still to look down on me. But they do obey my policies,” she said.
In a recent interview conducted in the small wooden commune office, she was quick to smile, but thoughtful when answering questions.
Being a woman may shape some of her policies, she said, because she can sympathize with women’s issues. So it is no small wonder that the first issue she talked about was birth spacing.
Much of her time is spent riding a bicycle down the winding paths that lead from village to village, field to field. Along the way, she educates women on the benefits of smaller, healthier families.
It is not a good idea to have too many children, she explains to them. Too many children means not enough food to eat, not enough clean clothes to go to school, and sometimes poor health.
And while some parents still believe that more children means more help in the fields, Neang Vanna explains to them that the opposite is actually true.
“If there are less children, the parents will have good health, and they will have time to work for more money,” she said.
In her commune of approximately 6,000 people, about 2,800 of them voters, Neang Vanna said she has managed to convince about 60 percent of the women to practice birth spacing.
About four babies are born in the commune every month compared to seven or eight per month in the 1980s, Neang Vanna said.
After she spoke of the births in her commune, her conversation moved on to the deaths in the commune.
Even here, far from any cities or major roads, HIV and AIDS have arrived, as young women return to the commune from sex work in urban areas.
Neang Vanna said she suspects six people died here from AIDS in the past year. So on her bicycle rides she also educates families about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. She hopes she can reduce the number of deaths in her commune.
Perhaps her most tangible accomplishment lies not far up the trail, surrounding by high-growing cactus, bamboo and palms. It is the school she managed to fund for the commune in 1993.
Before 1993, schools were far away for the children, who have to pedal their bicycles across vast rice fields, twisting and turning and following the low dikes that separate the paddies.
There was not enough money from the government, so Neang Vanna traveled to Phnom Penh to seek out a friend from the district who had married a wealthy man.
Neang Vanna convinced the couple to donate $12,000, and now more children are able to attend. Still, about two percent of the children ages six and seven do not attend school, she said.
Her commune appears peaceful, making it difficult to imagine that the fields where today the families and their livestock work were once mine fields and killing fields.
“In 1981 the most difficult job for me was to collect the bones and the skulls” from a mass grave named Popokvil Mound, she said. She had just survived the Khmer Rouge years, working alongside the villagers.
Those who were executed right in the commune were dumped at Popokvil. Others were “arrested” and disappeared.
So when the liberating Vietnamese army put her in charge of the commune, she and her neighbors set about the grim task of digging the bones out of the ground and placing them in a well at a nearby pagoda.
“Now the bones are at Wat Prokrong,” Neang Vanna said. “Now that killing area has become a villager’s rice field.”
The villagers then began demining the other fields.
Today, there are many amputees. But there are also many rice fields.
These are accomplishments Neang Vanna said she can take credit for, and for which she hopes she will be remembered on Feb 3.
Neang Vanna said she isn’t worried about losing the job she has been performing for the past 20 years.
“If I lose or win will depend on the villagers,” she said. “They have seen my work. We will see.”