Rural Cambodians Hear Little of 2001 Elections

rovieng district, Preah Vihear province – Robiep commune is off the beaten path, but not too far.

Only 16 km east of the main road that leads north from Kom­pong Thom town to the Preah Vihear provincial capital of Tbeng Meanchey, Robiep is certainly not remote compared to many settlements in rural Cambodia.

So one would expect veteran commune chief Sok Marun to be well-versed on the commune elections planned in 2001.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“I heard about it once on the radio,” Sok Marun said as he sat by the light of a single candle on his front porch after a day in the rice fields. “They said there would be an election early in 2001, but that was all they said. And I haven’t heard anything else.”

The Council of Ministers, the National Assembly, Cambodian free election advocates and foreign NGOs are struggling to create a workable commune election law and a practical system for conducting the election. But the reality is that outside of Phnom Penh, even the people most likely to be running for office may know little or nothing about the elections, slated to be held in Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes.

Sek Sophal, executive director of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, has already visited 15 pro­vinces trying to spread the news about elections, even though the election law hasn’t been passed and nobody knows when an election would be held.

“We try to explain to people why they need their own democratic government in their own location,” Sek Sophal said. “In a place like Preah Vihear, they’re thinking a lot more about filling their stomachs than they are about elections and political parties.

“When we do talk to them they usually ask two questions: why do we need commune elections, and what can we get from these people if we do elect them?”

Coffel has plans to spend $600,000 and try to educate four million voters. Their method is to write a letter to a provincial governor seeking permission to organize meetings in his province, and asking the governor to help spread election information.

Coffel then tries to set up meetings with key officials who can assist the group at the district, commune and village level.

Cambodia’s two other election monitoring agencies have also begun programs to educate rural people of their election rights, but officials say they are having difficulty getting villagers to understand the need for elections.

Robiep commune is about 245 km from Phnom Penh, at the foot of Phnom Kep. Mostly surrounded by other hills, no TV signal gets through, and the radio signal isn’t always clear. Mobile phone service to Preah Vihear province is less than a month old and does not cover the Robiep area.

So news must still spread by word of mouth and getting the word to Robiep is tough. Even though the commune is not in a flooded area, the last 16 km of road has knee-deep mud holes in spots and is nearly impassable even for four-wheel drive vehicles.

It’s a market town, and Sok Marun said by his count there are 4,128 residents in the six villages that make up Robiep. Rice is the only significant product shipped out. Farmers bring their bagged crop to a scale near the market and then the rice is loaded onto a huge former military transport truck, the only vehicle guaranteed to make it to the main road.

But it’s not a town untouched by the 21st century. There is a new school for grades 7-9, built by the government, that opened just over a year ago. One NGO has brought seven computers, two with Internet access, to an elementary school here.

There was one electricity generator along the main street a year ago; now there are several, although most go off at 9 pm. Some of that electricity is used to play karaoke tapes on television screens, and posters and stickers of Thai video stars are starting to replace the sun-bleached posters on sides of houses warning people not to touch land mines.

The Khmer Rouge was a presence in the area throughout the past decade, although they never controlled the populated market strip. “Other communes nearby had troubles, but not this one,” Sok Marun said. “In 1997 I was a little worried about the Khmer Rouge, but since 1998 I never worry.”

Sok Marun is 70 years old, and has been a village and commune leader since 1988, when he was first chosen in informal balloting by his neighbors. The job pays 30,000 riel (about $7.70) a month, so when he’s not doing commune business, he goes to work in his rice field.

He says he tries to get aid when people are needy, but that most of his work concerns disputes over the fields surrounding the commune, and the paperwork mandated by the government whenever someone wants to sell a cow or water buffalo.

Sok Marun is affiliated with CPP, which received 34,000 of the 48,000 votes cast in Preah Vihear province in the 1998 national elections. There are Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party offices in the commune, but even Third Deputy District Chief Keat Kemtol, who supports Funcinpec, said he doesn’t know if anyone would run against Sok Marun if there was an election. Of course, he has not thought about it much, since he had not heard anything about nationwide commune elections.

Neither had 40-year-old Prang Hing, who as chief of Dung Trak village within Robiep commune governs 959 residents, their names neatly scrawled in a hand-written notebook he keeps close at hand.

Prang Hing lost both parents during the Khmer Rouge era and was a government soldier during the 1980s. He was appointed village chief nearly two years ago by Rovieng district officials. His pay is 22,000 riel (about $5.65) a month, so like Sol Marun he spends his days in the rice fields.

“My job is to receive messages from the district chief and the commune chief, and then get the people together and give them the news,” Prang Hing said. “I have received no information from the district officials about an election. We don’t have TV, and I have heard nothing on the radio.”

He said he might like to become commune chief himself someday, “but that would be up to the [CPP] party and the people.”

Sok Marun isn’t positive he wants to be commune chief any more. He admits that when he comes home after a long day in the fields, he often wishes there wasn’t someone waiting for him to talk about selling a cow.

“But the people may say: ‘Grandfather, please run again’ because they like me, even though I may be getting old,” Sok Marun offers with a small smile of pride.

If he runs, his platform will be straightforward, if ambitious: trying to give everyone what they want.

“I would like the government and the organizations to give me an idea of what they want, and I would like the people to give me an idea of what they want,” Sok Marun said. “Then I would try to do it.”


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