stung sen district, Kompong Thom province – Self-assured CPP council candidate Seng Vanky seems to have all the answers to O’Kunthor commune’s problems, even if those solutions have to be paid for in Phnom Penh.
Reconstruction of an irrigation dam—which waters hundreds of hectares of rice fields—will be paid for by international aid and fees gained from the leasing of fishing lots on a branch of the Stung Sen River, he says. The same is true for the widening and paving of the 7 km road to Kompong Thom town, which will help villagers transport their rice to markets.
But when he’s asked about the massive flooding that has devastated the commune the last two years, Seng Vanky stops short. Large logging operations have depleted forests upriver in Preah Vihear and Kompong Thom provinces, he acknowledges. And that is one of the major reasons why the Stung Sen River, which runs through the commune’s four villages, has greatly overflowed.
Decentralization doesn’t seem so easy when you realize your commune’s biggest problem comes from somewhere in the north, more than 100 km away.
“There is talk among the villagers that there will be flooding again this year,” Seng Vanky says. “We are very close to the river, so it is very difficult to stop it.”
They may not be able to control the river, but on Sunday the villagers can gain some control over who their leaders will be. For the first time since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were toppled from power in 1979, voters can choose their own commune council.
That is especially significant in O’Kunthor commune. Saloth Sar, who later changed his name to Pol Pot, was born in O’Kunthor commune and spent his early childhood here. About 20 of his relatives, including his 75-year-old brother Loth Nhep, still live here.
The CPP reminds O’Kunthor commune residents, as they do everywhere else in Cambodia, that they are the party that ended the Pol Pot regime and began rebuilding the country.
The commune elections are another step toward that recovery. But that doesn’t mean villagers here will automatically look to the CPP to continue the rebuilding process.
Loth Nhep admits his brother and the Khmer Rouge made mistakes, and he is pleased that his neighbors are finally edging toward empowerment and, perhaps, prosperity. But he still worries about the future of his village.
“I don’t know about the fate of my grandchildren,” Loth Nhep said. “I have seen development in other villages, but not here.”
His niece, Nhep Thol, notes that “nothing happened” to the commune after the 1993 and 1998 elections, despite promises of development. “Other villages around here have had construction. Even the people in Anlong Veng have it better,” she said.
When Loth Nhep was young and healthy and could still go to the fields, farmers could always depend on a little flooding from the Stung Sen River. Fields would be filled with just enough water to help the rice grow without damaging it, and villagers’ homes were usually left undamaged.
That changed in July 2000, when enormous flooding ruined the rice harvest, killed livestock and toppled homes. Food shortages sent villagers out to fish on the Tonle Sap lake or to work as laborers in Phnom Penh. It happened again in 2001.
Until Prime Minister Hun Sen suspended logging concession operations nationwide in late December, fully-loaded trucks could be seen rumbling along day-and-night on nearby National Route 6. This has been going on since the early 1990s, villagers say.
While the level of education in the commune is low, most understand the connection between the flood disasters and the trucks that have passed through Kompong Thom town.
“Tree roots can hold a lot of water,” said one 11-year-old boy. “When all the trees are cut down, the river becomes too full.”
The Stung Sen River is fed by numerous streams to the north, where much of the nation’s logging has taken place in the past decade. It runs through Kompong Thom town and O’Kunthor commune before winding its way into the Tonle Sap lake.
O’Kunthor is close enough to the Tonle Sap’s flood plain that excessive flooding on the lake also affects the commune. That flooding is caused by logging that takes place along the Mekong River, as far upstream as China, according to conservation officials.
Standing next to the commune’s narrow, sandy riverside road, Vong Kea, the Sam Rainsy Party’s number two council candidate, says the majority of residents want a change in leadership. People are poor here, he says. They have had the same CPP leaders for 22 years, but have seen little development or prosperity.
“People talk about the logging, and they are fed up with the government. They see the trucks on the road and the floods, and they know that the forest is almost finished,” says Vong Kea.
But he says people are mostly angry about the way flood relief aid was distributed in 2000 and 2001. Many villagers fear they will face a food shortage this July and August because of meager harvests.
“I have seen corruption and bias in the commune with aid. I saw that people were asking for help, but the officials did nothing,” he says.
This sentiment was echoed by other villagers, including Chea Choeun, Funcinpec’s No 1 candidate. He claims people with televisions and big houses received help while people whose homes were destroyed did not. Several villagers accused commune leaders of distributing relief only to relatives, friends and fellow party members.
Former deputy commune chief Chea Kinal says 200 out of 800 families received aid in 2000. In 2001, just 40 families received aid. With only so much donated to the commune, he said it was impossible to satisfy everyone.
Rice, second-hand clothing and plastic tents were donated by the government, the Cambodian Red Cross and the World Food Program. Additional aid from Christian NGOs was distributed through the commune’s two Christian churches. (About 25 percent of the commune follows Christianity.)
“I will go to choose a new leader, a leader who is neutral. The current leaders were partisan in giving out aid,” says Phann Chea, a father of eight children.
The complaints about flood aid are a problem for the CPP in the commune and across the country, Chea Kinal says. But he accuses Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party activists of using the issue for political gain. “They only want to damage the ruling party’s reputation,” he says.
Ros Phon, 77, laughs when he says: “We don’t need the old. We need the new.” But he’s serious when he says he will mark his ballot for Funcinpec.
Other villagers would not reveal which party they will vote for Sunday. But many indicated they were unhappy with the commune’s current leadership.
That was apparently evident to local CPP officials, who polled commune residents last year. As a result, the former commune chief was moved down to the party’s No 3 slot, while Chea Kinal and Seng Vanky were