Food Bigger Worry Than Vote in Mondolkiri

SEN MONOROM, Mondolkiri prov­ince – While much of the country is reeling with campaign hype, the people of Mondolkiri prov­ince—more than 80 percent of whom belong to ethnic minorities—appear indifferent. Only the banners at Funcinpec and CPP headquarters indicate any political activity here. No new hats. No new T-shirts.

For other parties, this isolated northeastern province’s one parlia­mentary seat is not worth it. The ruling party holds that seat now, and of the three parties vying for it, only the ruling party has fielded a candidate from the Pnong minority—the largest of the local hill tribes.

According to Sam Sarin,  pro­vincial director of the Com­mittee for Free and Fair Elect­ions, that suits most people here fine. When party activists visit the villages looking for support, they seek to divide tightly knit communities by seeding loyalties most locals find irrelevant.

“They are not interested in this matter, because they are focusing on their stomachs,” Sam Sarin said Tuesday. “They know when Election Day is, but some will be too busy with their farms to vote…. They are not much concerned about the leader.”

Bek Noun, a 73-year-old Pnong tribesman with some bottom teeth and stretched punctures in his earlobes, resides with his wife and granddaughters on the outskirts of Sen Monorom. He said he has lived through six regimes, beginning with the French, and loved them all but Pol Pot’s. He plans to cast his ballot, as the polling station will be nearby.

“I will vote for Hun Sen be­cause only Hun Sen will come and give gifts,” he said Saturday. “I am waiting for the village chief to tell me what number [on the ballot] to vote for.

“All of the hill tribe people have the community chief tell them what number to vote for,” Bek Noun said.

His neighbor, Krail Buch, said she cannot remember if she is 56 or 58. She also cannot remember who she has voted for in the past. But the village chief is holding her voting card and will call on her and tell her who to vote for, “just like the past two times,” she said.

Other villagers, who also said they planned to vote CPP, said the chief was away sick in a hospital.

In another Pnong village, about 10 km from Sen Monorom, Brak Thon, 36, said only one party is present in his village. “The CPP, they come to give the gifts here”—50 kg of rice, sarongs, kramas and a few thousand riel for each family, he said.

While many people living in and around Sen Monorom do not seem dissatisfied with the local brand of democracy, Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party activists have many complaints.

Mondolkiri Gov­er­nor Tor Soeuth, a Funcin­pec member, said Saturday that vote-buying is only one of the CPP’s low-down campaign tac­tics. With party members through­­­out local officialdom, the CPP can tighten a variety of screws on the electorate, such as providing government services and aid only to its loyalists.

People who do not support the CPP can lose their jobs or “might have an accident,” he said.

“I appeal to the international observers and NGOs to come to the province far from Phnom Penh. The people here are very concerned about their personal safety and intimidation,” he said.

A local Sam Rainsy Party activist was difficult to locate. But he eventually turned up, smiling and eager to talk about his challenges here.

Sitting on the porch of the Christian orphanage he runs in Sen Monorom, Sdoeung Pov said there are 144 opposition activists in Mondolkiri, but many of them have been harassed by local authorities. He said that in the past year or so, his activists have been arrested on charges such as human trafficking and stealing cattle, but have since been released due to insufficient evidence.

“We don’t have many Sam Rainsy Party signs because people are afraid to raise them in front of their houses,” he said.

Across the road from the or­phanage, behind a big Sam Rainsy Party sign board, is a lot, vacant but for a small thatched shelter—similar to the one a roadside vendor might peddle refreshments from.

“I asked Sam Rainsy to come here, he said no because it is too far,” Sdoeung Pov said. “He gave me the mandate to run the party [here], but I hope he will still visit.”

Sdoeung Pov was also scornful of the CPP’s campaign. “They choose the Pnong candidate for political purposes. If they cared about the nation, they would not choose the Pnong people who are not qualified,” he said. “The CPP does for the vote. The Sam Rainsy Party does for the nation.”

Ty Chhoun, chairman of the Mondolkiri El­ec­tion Com­mittee, keeps his office in a run-down building formerly home to the Sen Mono­rom Hotel. Sitting at his desk on Friday, he apologized for the tepid tea and said dem­ocracy is well in Mondolkiri.

Conceding that there had indeed been some recent minor disputes, Ty Chhoun said,

“The intimidation is not violent—only threats and insults. Only sometimes when people are drinking. But when they are sober, sometimes they say ‘sorry’ and return to being good neighbors,” he said.

Ty Chhoun also said some cases were fabricated. He told of a case where an opposition ac­tivist accused the CPP of burning down his supporter’s home. He said that when the provincial election committee investigated, the supposed arson victim admitted to setting the fire himself while attempting to banish ants from his home with a torch.

As for voter apathy in Mondol­kiri: “The minority people near town understand their duty…but people in more remote areas might not understand, but they know the date of the election. And they know that if they have to come from far away, they can spend one night at the polling station,” Ty Chhoun said, adding that the commune election committees had been keeping him abreast of the situation in those remote areas by radio.

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