High Voter Turnout Expected Among Ratanakkiri Hill Tribes

banlung district, Ratanakkiri province – Smiling images of King Norodom Sihanouk are projected through the evening darkness against an outdoor movie screen carried between jungle villages.

Throughout the province, Fun­cin­pec officials are showing a film produced by party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, as well as putting on live comedy shows and giving political pep talks. The event aims to embrace hill tribe villagers with the arms of the royal family, Ministry of Plan­ning Secretary of State Lay Prahas said, using rhetoric long employed by the King.

“People are surrounded and isolated in the forest, so they have no access to the outside world. The only thing they know is this tight duress which has ruled them for the last 20 years,” said Lay Prahas, Funcinpec’s top candidate in Ratanakkiri.

That the CPP won a ma­jor­ity in 48 of the province’s 49 com­munes in the 2002 commune elections could make it difficult for Funcin­pec—or any other party—to win votes in Ratanak­kiri. Seven ethnic minorities comprise 65 percent of the population.

The hill tribes “are very act­ive and registered to vote, but they’re doing what they’ve had suggested to them,” said Jan Noorlander, CARE’s Highland Children’s Edu­ca­tion Project manager. Hill tribe villagers often rely on the wisdom of elders, and village and commune chiefs to make important decisions.

Distinct languages, cultural be­liefs and animism are exercised by the majority of ethnic minorities, which occupy the margins of political life and society.

“It’s a very different culture than Cambodia,” Noorlander said.

Ratanakkiri hill tribes were early recruits for the Khmer Rouge, as their subsistence lifestyles exemplified the society the Khmer Rouge wanted to build.

But one ethnic Tampuan, Bou Thong, helped organize a small re­bellion against the Khmer Rouge, leading thousands of dissidents across the border to Viet­nam in 1972. Trained as a communist in Hanoi, he later re­turned to Cam­bo­dia to rise through the CPP’s ranks, ultimately becoming Min­is­ter of Defense in the 1980s. He now serves as Ratanakkiri’s Na­tion­al Assembly representative.

“The indigenous still feel they have contact with influential powers because they have him,” Noor­lander said of Bou Thong.

Provincial CPP government officials are relying on the party’s past to secure its future.

No high-tech equipment will be employed to ral­ly voter support, just a few microphones, T-shirts, hats and a party platform teeming with history.

“I remember the Tampuan and ethnic cultures were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Today the CPP has brought back everything,” commune official Nheam Taisy, 59, said. “We don’t say anything bad about the other parties, we just say the good about ours.”

Voter turnout should be high in Ratanakkiri—about 51,969 of 54,650 eligible voters are registered, said provincial election committee head Sok Ham.

High vote counts from the 1993 and 1998 elections should be even greater this year, he said, as the number of polling stations has increased from 99 to 117 to limit the distance voters must travel to cast their ballots.

There is a high degree of illiteracy in the province, with few hill tribe villagers able to read, write and speak Khmer. But Sok Ham said he is confident that voters, regardless of their ethnicity, will be able to understand the ballot, as 50 percent of election officials belong to an ethnic minority and can explain the voting procedure.

CPP provincial Cabinet Chief Nap Bun Heng said voters have voted twice before and will know what to do when handed a ballot.

But Wur Poam, 45, of Banlung district’s Yeak Loam commune, admits she doesn’t quite understand why she will go to the polls.

“I don’t know what it means to support a particular party,” she said. “The commune chief told us to vote for Hun Sen, so I will.”

Deng Naoi, 69, also will choose Hun Sen’s party because it saved him from the Khmer Rouge. He plans to vote for stability, rather than for change.

More election news is reach­ing Ratanakkiri than in previous years, with Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America broadcast in Banlung and nearby villages.

But with electricity unavailable to most of Ratanakkiri’s roughly 100,000 residents, radio is heard primarily by people with batteries and understood only by Khmer speakers.

Expectant mother Pleun Chen­da, 19, also knows little about the parties running against the CPP.

“I believe our village elders who tell us about the CPP. Everyone likes CPP, so I like them too,” she said.

Lay Prahas considers village elders the best vehicles for change. With his movies and pamphlets packed in several sports-utility vehicles, the Funcinpec hopeful is charging across Ratanakkiri with a message.

“Village elders are the fathers of a family of children—each of which deserves equal rights,” he said. “Or else they don’t deserve to be parents.”

 

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