stung treng district, Stung Treng province – The Funcinpec campaign event in Sras Russey commune is a simple affair. About 50 voters cluster around candidate Eng Heng, 67, either sitting on a tarpaulin or squatting in the dirt, surrounded by dozens of children.
Eng Heng wears a snappy white polo shirt, with the Funcinpec logo on the breast and blue cuffs on the sleeves, and a matching white cap. A bespectacled man with a kindly face and a calm, even voice, he reads from a pamphlet, something many of the villagers cannot do. There are 25 problems his party will solve if elected, he says, and he reads the list to those around him.
“There is not enough food. Health conditions are bad. Sickness is widespread. No treatment is available. Working conditions are bad. Children often have diarrhea. There is no canal system for irrigation. The last harvest was bad. There is no market system. There are floods and droughts. Education is scant. There are too many children. There are no toilets. There is no drinking water. Roads are bad or nonexistent.”
It is a long list. When Eng Heng finishes it, he looks up. “We must work together to eliminate poverty and encourage development,” he says.
It’s not just Funcinpec—all three political parties running for commune council in Sunday’s election promise to work for development. But in this empty, forgotten province, that word sounds like a fantasy.
“I’m glad to hear that they want to develop our village,” Duong Samna, 38, says after Eng Heng’s speech. “But I don’t know whether to believe all the promises.”
Development would certainly be a novelty in Stung Treng. The most sparsely populated province in Cambodia except for Mondolkiri, it averages just seven people per square km. Most of those people live along the rivers—Mekong, Sekong, Se San—that run like veins through the province.
Bordering Laos, Stung Treng is not a “former Khmer Rouge stronghold” and has no land mines or indigenous ethnic minorities, so there is little to attract the attention of the government or NGOs—just poor farmers trying to eke out a living.
“There’s no economic activity here and no physical infrastructure,” says Michael Sheppard, provincial educational coordinator for Unicef. There are four secondary schools and one high school in the entire province, and few paved roads or hospitals.
CPP provincial chief Chhim Rachna says his party expects to win 60 percent of the vote. The CPP has kept peace and security for the last 23 years, he says, “[and] it’s traditional in Khmer culture that people have gratitude to the leaders who rescue them.”
Chhim Rachna says the ruling party has a development plan for each of the province’s 34 communes, promising improvements for markets, roads, drinking water and health care. As for why these improvements don’t exist already, he says: “Development doesn’t happen in one day. It takes time to build up.”
But many voters say they are impatient with the CPP. They want to know why more progress hasn’t been made since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Sam Rainsy Party activist Phan Bunsoun, squatting on the floor of his stilted island hut with a blue-and-white krama around his waist, says the opposition hopes to exploit those feelings and win votes.
“The CPP has kept peace, but they have not built anything here” in Sammaki commune, which includes the eight villages on Kantoyko Island in the Mekong River. “No bridges, no hospitals, no road system, not even a commune chief’s office. Last year, NGOs came and built schools—not the government.”
In the 1998 national elections, the CPP won about 57 percent of the provincial vote. The Sam Rainsy Party received 21 percent, Funcinpec 17 percent and other parties 5 percent.
Phan Bunsoun argues the Sam Rainsy Party will make gains because more people now understand the difference between his party and Funcinpec. “In 1998, many people thought they were the same thing,” he said.
The party hopes to win 15 to 20 of the 34 communes in the province. “The Sam Rainsy Party is very strong here,” Phan Bunsoun says. “When Sam Rainsy visited here, 1,000 people came to see him.” Kantoyko Island only has 3,800 people and 1,524 registered voters.
As Phan Bunsoun speaks, a cat sleeps on a pile of fishing nets. Outside, past the steep bank terraced and planted with crops, buffaloes wade snout-deep in the river.
In a province where some voters will have to walk or ride an oxcart for up to eight hours to get to the polls, Stung Treng’s 86 percent voter registration rate is remarkable. According to PEC chief Puy Chanthalak, 38,508 people were eligible to vote and 32,974 of them registered.
“In some remote areas, it is more than 20 km from people’s homes [to the polling place],” Puy Chanthalak says. “We are encouraging them to come in the evening [the day before] and stay near the poll station with friends or at a pagoda.”
European Union election monitor Alexis Michel said logistics will be the biggest problem for EU observers as well as the voters themselves. Even radio communication may not be possible in some areas.
Puy Chanthalak says the people of Stung Treng are keenly interested in the election and enthusiastic about voting. Indeed, farmers living on isolated Mekong River islands more than an hour from Stung Treng town by motor-powered canoe show impressive political savvy and dedication to the process.
“My family will only vote for the CPP, but I want to make a more careful decision,” says Pao Kong, 44, who grows fruits and vegetables on a farm that once belonged to his grandmother on 140-meter-wide Koh Treng island, Sammaki commune. Like more than half the people here, Pao Kong can speak Khmer, but uses an old version of the Lao language at home with his wife and seven children.
He hasn’t decided whom to vote for. “We’ve lived with the CPP for many years, and in this place many people like them. But I’ll have to see which candidate I think will be able to develop this area for the new generation.
“In 1998, some parties gave us food or money. If they think they can buy our vote by doing this, they’re wrong. We know this is no good, and if they win they will not respect democracy or help us.”
The province election committee reports a few incidents of verbal intimidation or defacing of party signs, but nothing serious. An elderly Funcinpec candidate died in his sleep of a heart attack on Jan 15. A Sam Rainsy Party candidate drowned on Jan 18; both the election committee and opposition party investigators concluded that death was accidental.
Representatives from CPP and Funcinpec agree their parties coexist peacefully. Khieu Khen, Sam Rainsy Party deputy chief for the province, complained about threats and disrespect for his candidates, but said they have only served to strengthen the party’s popularity.
And so life continues as it pretty much always has in Stung Treng. The people tend their crops and look forward to their first taste of self-determination, cautiously hopeful that progress may come to them at last.
“We earn our living day by day,” says Khum Sreng, 55, as she plays cards with her family in Sras Russey commune. A couple of extremely worn 100-riel notes are held down with a pebble in front of where she sits. “All of us believe we need a new leader to develop our village and help our people,” she says. “We need to build schools, take care of our children, improve the road system.”
Her brother Khum Kamvan, 64, who was a finance official in the 1960s but has since forgotten the English and French he learned in school, agrees. “I’m a simple person, but I know it’s important to choose good leaders,” he says. “The chief we have now was never voted into office by the people.”
Neither Khum Sreng nor Khum Kamvan will say whom they plan to vote for. “Your vote is a secret decision. You can vote for the right person and no one can force you to vote for someone you don’t want to,” Khum Kamvan says.
His advice is to ignore the politicking and focus on the character of the candidates. “Once you choose the right person, then you can ask for schools, hospitals, roads and other things,” he said. “I will choose based on the person, not the promises.”