tbong khmum district, Kompong Cham province – The $56 million bridge over the Mekong river that opened Dec 4 connects Kompong Cham town with Tonle Bet commune, a string of villages hugging the east bank of the river.
The villagers are thankful they no longer have to pay 500 riel (about $0.12) every time they need to cross the river to go to the provincial capital or beyond. It’s easier to get farm products to the market, and the poorer students who study in Kompong Cham town now come home every night rather than stay over to save on the ferry fare.
The residents of Tonle Bet concede life may change as bridge use increases and their commune develops as a gateway to the northeast provinces. But at the moment they are more concerned with the water running under the bridge, and how to get some it into their fields, many of which are used to grow tobacco.
“We need pumps,” said a chorus of women congregated at a sugar cane juice stand along the dusty north-south road that connects Tonle Bet’s villages. “It’s 1,000 meters from the river to our fields, and it costs 5,000 riel [about $1.25] per hour to rent a pump. And sometimes we need to run the pump all day.”
Empty blue hoses running from the river to the fields cross the road at regular intervals, testimony to the demand for irrigation water. If you want to be elected commune chief here on Feb 3, you might want to talk less about the new bridge and more about what you would do to get the voters a few pumps.
Tonle Bet was a bright spot for Funcinpec in 1998. According to commune election committee chairman Sok Run, the party received almost 4,000 votes in the national election compared to about 1,000 for the CPP and about 500 for the Sam Rainsy Party. Sok Run says there are 7,911 residents 18 years or older, of which 6,341 are registered to vote in this election.
As in the other 1,621 Cambodian communes, the incumbent chief is a CPP appointee. Kok Meng, 52, has held the post for 10 years. He grew up in Tonle Bet, and says he welcomes the first-ever local elections even if his job is on the line.
“I think it’s a very good idea,” he said as he escaped the midday heat in the shade beneath his stilt house. “People should be able to vote for leaders they have confidence in.”
While he acknowledges most people credit Prime Minister Hun Sen for the bridge, he says he’s running on local issues.
“The people want leaders with kindness,” he said. “They know CPP will take care of their needs in special times. I will work to fix the road and make it easier for people to get water for farming.
“For security, we will meet the needs of the people by watching at night with shifts of five people. And we will work to make the schools better.”
Two new classrooms are already under construction at Tonle Bet College, an overcrowded secondary school where classes with 45 students are not uncommon. Schoolmaster Chhe Chhay Hourn says the teachers would love to have more equipment, perhaps a globe or some maps to hang on the wall to help teach geography. He would also like to see the two months‘ back pay he has not received.
“Most people talk about the CPP,” he said of the upcoming elections. “They do many things; fix roads, build new temples, meet any demands of the people. From the other parties, we don’t see anything.”
Funcinpec’s top commune council candidate, Sok Tit, says he reminds voters that it was the Japanese government, not the CPP, who financed and built the new bridge.
A father of four, he’s a former tobacco farmer who now pumps water from the river to sell to farmers while his wife sells banana-rice cakes. Not surprisingly, he knows what the voters want.
“Water pumps and good ditches to irrigate the fields,” he said. “That’s what they tell me.”
Sok Tit joined Funcinpec in 1991 because he believed King Norodom Sihanouk would bring peace to the country. He says he gets 20,000 riel (about $5) every couple months from the party, and doesn’t plan to spend much more than that on the campaign.
“I’m running because I’m a patriot who loves his country,” he said. “I will do what I can to bring democracy.” He doesn’t ask the voters to pick any particular party. “I just tell them that the future depends on them,” he said.
If Sok Tit wins, he’ll have to work in cooperation with CPP-appointed provincial and district officials. “I’m afraid there will be problems,” he said. “I think they will try to find our mistakes and use them against us.”
Atop the Sam Rainsy Party ballot is Chim Len, a 51-year-old farmer who grows corn, tobacco and chili peppers. A large party sign in front of his house replaces one someone tore down a few hundred meters away. He says he has belonged to the party since its inception.
“I tell people that we’re the party who try to find justice for the people,” he said. “We especially try to find jobs for the poor.”
He said the new bridge was actually a mixed blessing. “Of course it’s easier to get products to market,” he said. “But many people here sold small goods at all the ferry landings, and now that is all gone.”
Chim Len was preparing to host 30 people the next day to discuss such election basics as how to vote, how to observe the vote and how to watch the ballot counting.
He figured it will take 200,000 riel (about $50) to pay and feed campaign workers between now and Feb 3. “We have 22 candidates on the ballot, and we all share the expenses,” he said.
What is his message? “Don’t be frightened to vote for the party of your choice. Choose the party that can find justice and will work for the people. Don’t miss this good chance.”