chamkar bei village, Kep municipality – Tak Lean and Heng Keak are chatting about how the new commune council might work when an RCAF officer wanders over.
The men, both 48, fall silent as he comes within earshot. Their faces betray their tension.
After living for decades in this often violent area, controlled until a few years ago by a brutal faction of the Khmer Rouge, neither Tak Lean nor Heng Keak is likely to relax in the presence of a soldier.
Not until he leaves do they return to the topic.
“I have never heard of the word ‘decentralization,’” says Tak Lean. “I don’t have hope that I will ever understand it.” His face freezes again as another militiaman approaches.
The conversation will have to wait until another time.
The plight of Tak Lean and Heng Keak is also faced, to some degree, by Cambodian voters across the country.
After years of war and a decade of occupation by a communist state, they are products of a government controlled from the top down and the center out for as long as most can remember.
On Feb 3, they will vote for a commune council that, on paper at least, will turn all of that upside down.
Power no longer will flow only from the distant central government down to the villages, but will be invested by the voters in local officials they can see and hear every day.
But many voters don’t even understand the system they are currently living under, let alone the one they are about to usher in. They simply recognize the commune chief as their leader.
The new system of choosing a commune council that will make local decisions without waiting for instructions from Phnom Penh will take some explaining, says Heng Monychenda, director of Buddhism for Development in Battambang.
Even the Khmer word for decentralization—vimachaka—is not commonly used in everyday language.
Chamkar Bei villager Kak Seng, 47, said she understands it well because her husband is a commune election committee official in Pong Toek commune. But to most of her neighbors, she said, the word is as new as the concept.
And while the concept sounds great, she says it may not make much difference in her commune, where many former Khmer Rouge still walk around carrying guns.
They don’t care much about “votes” or “democracy,” she says. Most know only the concept of centralized authority, and many are corrupt. Some are running for council. “If we vote for them, we will only suffer more,” Kak Seng says.
Nearby Phnom Voar was the site of the infamous murders of 13 Cambodians and three foreign backpackers in 1994.
Since the Phnom Voar Khmer Rouge defected to the government in 1996, Kak Seng says there have been four occasions on which aid was distributed to the people of the region due to one hardship or another.
Very few of the really needy received any aid, she says, because the commune officials arranged for the aid to go to their relatives.
She knows that the new commune administration law grants people the right to protest against the elected commune council if they have evidence of wrongdoing.
But Kak Seng wonders how much good it will do. “We are living without rights,” she said. “The leaders are very corrupt. All of them are former Khmer Rouge.” And, she says, most are running for commune council.
Neither the Pong Toek commune chief nor the village chief of Chamkar Bei were willing to be interviewed.
But Chhouk Rin, the former Khmer Rouge military commander of Phnom Voar, said it is not true the voters will have no rights. Now the deputy commander of the sub-military region of Kep town, he was tried and acquitted last year on charges of involvement in the killings of the foreign backpackers.
“No, people here have their right to protest,” he said last week at his Phnom Voar home, where he owns a cockfighting arena. He said he believes the voters will understand those rights clearly enough, and that those who don’t will have the chance “to attend sessions discussing the new local system.”
Some non-governmental organization workers say that it’s unrealistic to think that a lecture or two is all that is needed to help people make such an enormous switch in systems.
People raised under authoritarian systems are not likely to have the nerve to express their ideas or even to complain when they are treated badly, they say.
Even some commune chiefs don’t understand the new system, despite attending training sessions by NGOs. Many chiefs, appointed in the 1980s by what became the CPP, don’t have much education, the NGO workers say.
It may not be realistic to expect the chiefs to easily or quickly adapt to working with other council members and making local decisions on their own, without waiting for instructions from Phnom Penh.
Tak Lean says he is very interested in hearing more about the new system, and wonders how it will work to develop his village. He says he may find it hard to notice differences, since he doesn’t clearly understand the system under which he lives now.
“The system is new, but the manpower remains the same,” he pointed out. He says he is not sure there will be a real change—an opinion shared by Heng Keak.
“This system could not be implemented properly” by those who have been in power for the past 20 years, Heng Keak says—the habits and attitudes of communism would be too hard to break.
Election monitoring organizations have provided training for about 300 commune candidates in Kampot and Kep, both on how the election will work and how the commune will be administered by the new council.
One monitor said the plan is for the trained candidates to then train their political supporters in how the new system will work.
Meng Soun is the second deputy governor of Kampot province, next door to Kep town. He fears the training is not going to be enough, and that more will be needed after the election.
Heng Lay, a 56-year-old commune council candidate for Funcinpec in the Pong Toek commune, has made it a campaign issue. If he is elected, he says, he will train all the villagers in the commune in what their rights are under law.
“It is not a serious problem,” he says. “We can tell them then. I strongly hope that I will be able to.”
That promise doesn’t convince prospective voter Tak Lean. “Anybody can say that, even the bad commune chiefs,” he says. “Then after he is elected, he treats us bad.”