sihanoukville – “This boat is for everything: Fish, shrimp, squid, crab, we get it all. But the fishing this year is not the same as other years,” said Mok Sokha, who had just awakened from a midday sleep. He and his partner would soon shove off for another long night of harvesting the sea.
Mok Sokha and his partner are bringing in only one-third of their regular catch this year. He works on a small fishing boat out of Sihanoukville port, one of four owned by a local family. They drop their net in the water around 6 pm and drag it until midnight, then pull it in.
The process is then repeated and the net is dragged back up at around 5 am.
“This is a very hard life,” he said. “And that is why I don’t know much about what happens on land.”
Mok Sokha seemed to typify registered voters in Sihanoukville’s commune 1: An acute knowledge of underwater resources and their impact on the community, but little involvement in politics.
The fishing is not the same this year because there are more fishermen and fewer fish to go around. The residents say this is partly due to the arrival of more fishermen who have fled unfavorable fishing conditions in other parts of the country, and partly because of encroachment by foreign commercial fishermen.
Chhay Soin owns two small fishing boats. “There are many illegal fishing boats,” he said. “Cambodian fishermen are just families fishing, but the Thais can go into Cambodian territories and also fish in deeper waters. I have not seen this, but I have heard that it happens.”
As the Feb 3 commune council elections draw near, local candidates from the country’s three major parties have seized on the issue of protecting the livelihoods of fishermen and the residents who survive off their catches.
Of the 16,289 people who live in Commune 1, 10,493 are eligible to vote. Slightly more than half (5,667) have registered. According to Manh Vary, a commune election committee deputy, many fishermen are residents of communes in other provinces, and will likely go home to cast their votes.
Now 49, CPP party member Chhit Sophat has been commune chief since his appointment by the government in 1991. He contends that since he is a fishermen, he understands the concerns of the people. If he wins, he says he will set up an association to help local fishermen protect themselves from illegal fishing.
But he concedes he will need to enlist the help of a fishing expert to explain the law to the people.
In addition to protecting the fishermen, Chhit Sophat says he is known for providing emergency relief to residents of his commune in the form of small loans and funeral assistance, and he said he has helped build and repair local roads.
Funcinpec’s top candidate agrees that the most pressing issue is the declining yield from local waters.
“Protecting sea resources is the main issue. We have to protect our territory so local fisherman can make more income to develop their families,” said 45-year-old Pon Saroeun. “[If elected], I will ask the government to do a stricter job of preventing fishing boats from illegally encroaching on Cambodian waters”
Pon Saroeun, a father of five, also makes his living from the sea. He is a middleman who buys seafood from the fishing boats and sells it to markets. He sees security as another important issue that needs to be addressed by the commune chief.
“Fisherman are attacked by pirates [when they are at sea],” he said. “They will confiscate fishing nets or the fish if the fishermen do not have money to pay the bribes. We will strongly ask the government to solve the issue.”
The Funcinpec candidate echoed the need for expert assistance in the commune. “If elected, I will cooperate with any NGOs, experts, or environmental ministries,” he said. “[Experts] need to get involved and be more concerned with our issues.”
The Sam Rainsy Party’s lead candidate takes a more pragmatic approach, admitting that the first-ever popularly elected commune chief will be sailing uncharted waters.
“The first elected will be the one who clears the road for the people who will walk behind him,” said opposition candidate Sey Sovann.
He is unclear about the powers the government will give to the commune chiefs. “The government policy for the area is still not clear,” he said. “Although the law gives more power to the commune chiefs, we need a more specific explanation from the Ministry of Interior.”
He feels this election will be somewhat of a dry run that will allow people to become accustomed to the new system. He did note that many commune chiefs have held their position for decades and it is time for some fresh faces.
Sey Sovann is also concerned that elected officials too often follow the party line, rather than act according to the will of the people. He said the new commune chief will receive a lot of pressure from his party, but that the chief should serve the people rather than their parties.
Sey Sovann is also concerned about security at sea. “The big issue that we are going to talk about will be illegal checkpoints on the sea that are set up by policemen,” he said. “They illegally extort money [from the fishing boats] and it must be completely stopped.”
He contends that since these checkpoints are set up by the police, they are sanctioned by people with more power than the commune chief, and will be difficult to crack down on. “I strongly hope I can do it,” he said. “If I fail to do it I will get out from power.”
Many residents of Commune 1 have not decided who they will vote for yet, or are keeping their choice private until election day.
“I will ask the candidate what kind of qualifications he has,” said Phuk Chhun as he sat as his seaside provisions shop. “He should be good, smart, have good management [skills], be reliable and not corrupt. The one job of the commune chief should be to answer the people’s needs—like if there is some kind of robbery, we should be able to complain.”
Manh Vary said there has been no pre-election violence or intimidation. His only request is that the fisherman not cast their nets on election day, but remain on dry land and cast their ballots.