Mondolkiri Campaigns Challenge Candidates

sen monorom district, Mondol­kiri province – Khun Chanthou, the third candidate on the Sokh­dom commune Funcinpec list, kicks her red motorbike to life with a high-heeled sandal and beckons to An Neang, Funcin­pec’s No 1 candidate.

They are going in search of votes on a cool, breezy morning. An Neang, 43, settles herself daintily on the back and the Daelim roars away up a dirt road, belching clouds of black smoke.

It will be hours before the women return home, hours spent cresting vast grassy hills and rumbling down dry streambeds in search of tiny settlements of Phnong villagers, the commune’s dominant ethnic group.

The candidates in Sunday’s commune council elections are armed with campaign literature, determination, and lunch on this second day of campaigning. “Yesterday we didn’t eat all day,” confides Khun Chanthou, 28. “Today we packed food.”

It’s not like they can stop at a roadside stand for a bite. There are no stands. There are no roads, really, just tracks. It’s 20 minutes of mountain-goat travel to the first stop, eight thatch houses on a windswept hilltop that seems deserted.

Slowly, shyly, the heads pop out, children huddling together for protection. A half-wild pig skitters into the underbrush. Khun Chanthou makes a beeline for the first adult to emerge, 30-year-old  Ngorn Ly.

“This is a vote for the King, the Father,” she says, showing him the Funcinpec symbol and a photo of party leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh. She shows him a sample ballot, with the CPP and Funcinpec symbols.

She taps the Funcinpec column. “This one protects the land and doesn’t allow the Vietnamese to take it,” she says firmly. “It’s a secret vote. You can vote for who you want, and if you love the King you can vote for Funcinpec.”

As she speaks, Ngorn Ly fiddles nervously with a thin plastic bag of rice he bought in Sen Monorom town. Suddenly it splits, pouring precious grains onto the dusty ground.

Khun Chanthou shoves the ballot forward to help catch the rice. “People here don’t have enough food,” says Ngorn Ly, his eyes on the ground. “I just want a good road, and better food, and maybe a water supply,” he tells the women.

The next stop is 10 minutes down a rocky track. This is Laoka village, maybe 10 houses of woven bamboo clustered near a well. The candidates go house-to-house, stopping to chat with two young women chopping wood.

The women listen silently as Khun Chanthou runs through her spiel, and giggle when she jokes she will buy them a liter of alcohol if they vote Funcinpec. “I’m joking! I’m joking!” she says, waving her hands to drive home the point.

The candidates distribute their brochures and move on to the next house. Kleum In, 25, watches them go. She says she has three children and wishes they had better health care. Folding the brochure with her fingers, she says all people in the village really want is rice.

She looks at the brochure and sighs. “We can’t read it,” she says. “We can’t read.”

THE EASIEST way to get to Mondolkiri is to be born there; any other route takes work. Planes no longer land at the dirt airstrip in the provincial capital of Sen Monorom. Even with new roads built by logging companies, the 521-km trip from Phnom Penh takes about nine hours, some of it spine-jarring.

Mondolkiri is Cambodia’s emptiest and poorest province, with 36,328 people—0.3 percent of the country’s population— scattered among its 18,682 square kilometers in five districts divided into 21 communes and 98 villages.

Sen Monorom, near its southern border, is the population center with about 8,500 people. None of its streets are paved, and only generators provide electricity.

“This province was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge,” says Ty Chhoeun, chief of the Provincial Election Committee and an ethnic Phnong. Only in recent years has the population begun to rebound, rising from 29,000 in the late 1990s to more than 36,000 today.

Many of the new arrivals are “lowlanders,” Khmers or Chams moving up from the rice-growing flatlands, drawn perhaps by the beauty, solitude and relative safety of Mondolkiri.

Ty Chhoeun worries that the famously shy Phnong, who make up more than 60 percent of the province’s population, will not be able to withstand an onslaught of lowlanders—especially if the government proceeds with plans to develop Mondolkiri as a tourist destination.

“They may feel overwhelmed and try to escape deeper into the forest, because they feel ashamed and are illiterate,” he says.

Ty Chhoeun has one of the toughest election jobs in the country. Some of his voting stations are so remote they can only be reached by oxcart, a man on foot or atop an elephant, depending on the time of year and the depth of the rivers that must be forded.

“In some places, the conditions can be terrible, and the cars break down,” he says. “We have to make alternate plans, dictated by geography. It is a hard job but we have experience at it.”

He says it took Mondolkiri province three days to collect final election results in 1998 and deliver them to Phnom Penh. The government sent a helicopter to Sen Monorom to pick up the results, but the fog and rain were so bad it couldn’t land.

This year, Ty Chhoeun will close the polls at 3 pm at the most remote polling station in the southwest corner of the province. As soon as the count is finished, a man will leave on foot to deliver preliminary results to the nearest commune election committee office; it will take him about 12 hours, walking at night through the jungle.

Ty Chhoen’s voters also present a challenge. The majority are Phnong, who traditionally move in 30-year cycles around large tracts of communally-owned land. The government is encouraging the Phnong to settle permanently in one location, so children can go to school and adults can gain access to health care.

“Many non-governmental organizations have come to this area and worked with them, step-by-step,” he says. “We do not force them to live by the road, but they begin to see the benefits of doing so.” With better education, experts say, tribal people will be better equipped to protect their ancestral lands from developers.

In 1998, the CPP won 15 of the province’s 21 communes, with four going to Funcinpec and two to the Sam Rainsy Party. In 1993, the CPP won two-thirds of the vote, with Funcinpec picking up 17 percent and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party 4 percent.

SOKHDOM commune is shaped like an egg standing upright, balanced on the small end. It is sparsely settled, with 2,049 residents in its four villages and 956 eligible voters. Of those, 773 or 80 percent have registered, slightly better than the provincial average of 76 percent.

Geography probably holds the key to this election. There are two polling stations in Sokhdom: one in Sen Monorom, at the small end of the egg; and one in Laoka village, at the egg’s middle. In 1998, 234 voters cast their ballots in Laoka, while more than twice that number voted in Sen Monorom.The CPP carried the commune in 1993 and 1998, says commune election committee chief Khun Kam.

Funcinpec and the CPP are each running five candidates and six reserves, with a higher-than-average number of women: Funcinpec has eight female candidates and the CPP has five. There are no Sam Rainsy candidates in the commune.

The CPP’s top candidate is In Eav, 61, who retired in 1997 as bureau chief for the provincial finance department. He is running in place of the incumbent commune chief, who did not want the job.

“The CPP knew I was retired, and that I had worked here a long time, and knew a lot of people,” he says. “And I have friends in the villages. I can speak some of their language.”

Like many Sen Monorom residents, he originally came to Mondolkiri from someplace else—in his case, from Takeo province in 1960 as a soldier for King Norodom Sihanouk.

“Most people in Sen Monorom are government officials and they know me,” he explains. “They know that I did a good job and was never involved in a serious scandal. They are my voters.”

He has thought a lot about the area and its problems. The first and biggest is lack of money.

“The commune does not have a source of income yet,” he says.

“So to develop, the indigenous people need to find markets for their products, and we need to teach them to grow what they can sell.”

The land is suited for crops like cassava and coffee, though the world market for coffee is depressed at the moment, In Eav says.

He explains that tribal people don’t like to grow vegetables or crops around their houses for fear of personal disputes developing. They prefer to harvest resin in the forest, which is open to all.

In Eav believes local officials must convince them to settle down, grow marketable crops and educate their children. “This is a time of interesting change,” he says. “If the villages get bigger and we provide more services, the people will be less likely to move.”

He says the key to Mondolkiri’s survival will be investment, whether from the government or from non-governmental organizations. “There are no private companies investing here,” he says. “If there were, we could get money from taxes.”

What’s clear, he says, “is that we can’t get money from the villagers. They don’t have it. This is a very poor area.”

But he believes the new commune council will offer citizens a real chance to direct their own futures. “This will be a group that works together and discusses solutions,” he says.

“We will respond to the voters’ requests, because they voted for us. They can decide ahead of time on our qualifications, our character and our record. And they can keep an eye on our performance.

“I only want to serve one term, to start the process, because I am tired,” In Eav says. “No one party will win a commune, so we will have to learn to work together. It is a good way.”



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