Land at Stake

samraong district, Oddar Meanchey prov­ince – The people of this province—with its bad roads, low education and land grabs—will be voting for their own parliamentarian for the first time this year. For the elections in 1998, they were all part of Siem Reap province, with Oddar Meanchey carved out of Siem Reap later that year.

Here, villagers and politicians say, the vote for Oddar Meanchey’s only parliamentary seat will be fought for over land. Land grabbing by the military puts people under constant threat of losing their property, and it’s the single most important issue to them.

Just ask Ieng Chan, a 55-year-old woman who sells sticky rice cakes stuffed with pork at the market in Samraong, the new province’s capital. She just lost her land to a military commander, who secured a title in a Siem Reap court. Left with no money to appeal, and little odds of winning the case anyway, Ieng Chan said last week that she has no idea what to do next.

“This makes me very angry,” she said. “If my land is confiscated, my family has no place to stay.”

In 1998, she said, she voted for the “Thev­ada” party, a colloquial name for the CPP, whose symbol is the Thevara spirit, which scatters flower blessings across the mortal earth.

“This time, it will be hard for me to decide who to vote for, because I’m very upset,” she said. “Now I don’t care so much about the upcoming election because the one I thought was good does not seem to be good. I only care about the land that will be lost. My family will have no land to live on.”

Despairing, she said she had no hope left, with the upcoming elections unlikely to change her plight.

“The egg cannot be thrown against the rock,” she said.

Military shenanigans are common in Oddar Meanchey, said Second Deputy Governor Mey Saman, a Funcinpec member.

“It is very hard, because every year this province is under control of the military,” he said.

It has been difficult for Funcinpec to wrest support away from the CPP here, and cases of coercion and intimidation are commonplace, he said.

“The pressure is not wide open. It is very secret. There is hidden pressure,” he said.

“For example, the pressure is carried out on the people, because the people are forced to sign a contract to vote for [the CPP]. So they will,” he said. “The people are very afraid [to be] forced to leave the area or be intimidated.”

The remoteness of the province makes it difficult to keep track of what’s going on, too, he said. “Because this is the forested area, so we don’t know what will happen to them,” he said. “They need safety.”

Funcinpec has been having a difficult time with their grass-roots campaign because of these things, although Mey Saman had little to report for intimidation other than the knocking down of a few party signs, especially in Anlong Veng and Trapaing Prasat districts, areas that were Khmer Rouge holdouts until 1998.

In Trapaing Prasat, he said, a Funcinpec election team was kept from erecting a party sign by armed soldiers. One of the team members was pistol-whipped after he took a photograph of the soldiers. A soldier took his film and destroyed his camera.

“It is political intimidation, if the party sign drops,” he said.

“When we have the campaign in the public, there’s no problem,” he said. “But supporters in remote areas, remote villages, they have a problem.”

Long Chhay, a 56-year-old farmer in Sam­raong, sports a Funcinpec sign outside of his house. He is paid about 1,000 riel per month to hang it there, which he said he does out of his loyalty to Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

At first, he was hesitant to hang the sign, thinking there might be “incidents,” but so far nothing has happened, he said. The sign has been up for five months.

The prince is a good leader, said Long Chhay, who was punching holes in a sheet-metal cylinder to make a Cambodian noodle press. “He’s the one who struggled to liberate the country.”

His neighbor, 31-year-old Phoeurth Hoeuy, agreed.

“Funcinpec is our father, so we have to support the party,” she said. “I love the prince, because the prince is the one that takes care of his homeland and protects the Cambodian heritage from being lost.”

Commune after commune in Oddar Mean­chey are outfitted with CPP loudspeakers that broadcast the party’s 11 platform points. A shrill woman’s voice spews out these slogans from 7 am to 5 pm, with a three-hour break between 11 am and 2 pm.

“At lunchtime, we cannot disturb people. It’s the time for people to take a rest and nap,” said the CPP’s Oddar Meanchey campaign chief, Sor Sotthy, who took careful notes in a ledger as he spoke. The loudspeakers are a major part of the CPP’s strategy here.

“Some parties do not broadcast the platform, but they just broadcast bad things about the other parties. That caused some CPP supporters to be bored,” he said. “From our party’s stance, we have to be patient.”

The most important issue, he said, was infrastructure and human resource development.

“For Oddar Meanchey province, it means that this province, the war broke out here before other places, and it ended after the other areas. So the infrastructure is very bad.”

“And everything is the priority for us. But the first thing is to focus on human resource development,” he said. “Especially education.”

He denied that any land seizures were taking place in the province.

“There’s no land seizures,” he said. “The CPP helps to bring more farms to the people, to reduce poverty.”

Sor Sotthy also denied that any political intimidation was taking place in the province.

“Since the campaign has started, there’s no intimidation at all, but some parties invented stories to give it a political aspect,” he said. “Intimidation is the kind of act that is committed intentionally, but it is not here. The problem is between individual and individual.”

Chinh Samphour, director of the provincial election committee, collects complaints from parties and investigates them.

“Even if the complaints are similar, we investigate,” he said. “This is our work.”

So far, he said, those complaints have turned out to be individual disputes, politicized.

He said, too, that land was the largest problem, as people come to settle down, and are finding there isn’t room for them, especially in Anlong Veng and Trapaing Prasat districts.

The election committee house is the last on a road that heads straight out into some patchy forest. A kilometer down that road, Chhoun Savath, a 39-year-old ex-soldier, was returning home with his two daughters after a day of collecting herbs in the forest.

He summed up his political leanings toward Hun Sen: “When he’s in power, we have peace, happiness.”

Chhoun Savath had been a soldier in O’Smach commune on the Thai-Cambodian border, and he’d been injured by a land mine. Now, he said, he was happy for the peace, and that he wasn’t fighting anymore.

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