Rural Discontent Helps Bolster Opposition

Prime Minister Hun Sen proclaimed as early as 2002 that a failure on behalf of his ruling CPP to deal with issues of land grabbing in the country could threaten the party’s hold on power, later promising any offending firms that he would take away their concessions—or cut off his own head. 


While the prime minister’s nationwide land-titling scheme introduced in June last year was intended to defuse growing tensions over land security, analysts and opposition figures said in the lead-up to last Sunday’s election that the move was unlikely to save the ruling party from voter dismay at the ballot box. Voters, they said, were now increasingly disenchanted with the ruling party over a variety of issues—including growing impunity for CPP officials and businesspeople accused of wrongdoings.

“The people now are more clever than before,” NGO Forum Director Chhith Sam Ath said Wednesday. “They have learned that the elected government must provide services for them, and if the service delivery is not enough they will not vote for that party.”

In some provinces the government’s last-minute reform efforts intended to shore up its vote ended up being a case of “all too little, all too late,” said Simon Springer, associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria in Canada, who focuses on Cambodia’s political and economic development.

“There was already a palpable sense of anger among the Cambodian people,” Mr. Springer said. “Land grabbing wasn’t the only issue that affected the result, but it was a major issue, and it was inevitable that it would come back to bite the CPP.”

One of the more dramatic victories for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at last Sunday’s election was in Svay Rieng province, where the opposition more than doubled its vote to win two of the province’s seven seats, having not won a single seat in the CPP stronghold in the 2008 national election
While the opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties took a combined 49,160 votes in 2008 in Svay Rieng, the united CNRP opposition last Sunday won 99,609.

That number still pales in comparison to the CPP, who had won all seven seats in 2008 and whose vote count dropped from 211,660 in 2008 to 183,258, but it was a shift that Kong Sophea, one of the CNRP candidates elected in Svay Rieng, attributed to anger at social injustices and intimidation by government officials.

“One of the most important grounds for getting votes in Svay Rieng province was the links between the triple-shooting of garment factory workers in Bavet City by a CPP official,” Mr. Sophea said, referring to former Bavet City governor Chhouk Bundith, who shot and injured three young garment workers during a violent strike in February last year.

“This proves the reality of massive social injustices—Chhouk Bundith shot at and injured three garment workers, but remains at large,” he said.

In Kompong Chhnang province, a similar link between a loss of votes for the CPP at Sunday’s election and high-profile land-disputes linked to senior CPP officials and businesspeople can be seen, according to Sam Chankea, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.

“The key factors that helped the CNRP gain a lot of votes here involves high-profile land disputes occurring in the province between local farmers and well-connected business people and officials in the ruling party,” Mr. Chankea said.

The CNRP received 96,038 votes in Kompong Chhnang last Sunday, according to the NEC’s figures, a near doubling of the 49,165 that the opposition parties won there in 2008.

Unlike in Svay Rieng, the rise in the CNRP’s vote in Kompong Chhnang came with the CPP’s vote count dropping only a few thousand from 125,195 to 123,322, suggesting the CNRP attracted both a large number of new voters and voters from other smaller parties.

KDC Company—an agro-industry firm owned by the wife of CPP Industry Minister Suy Sem—has been embroiled in a land dispute with 69 families over 145 hectares of land in Kompong Chhnang’s Taches commune that KDC claims to hold legal title to. Nearby in Kraing Leav commune, another 76 families are locked in another prominent land dispute with local businesswoman Moul Engly over 45 hectares of land.

“People locked in the land disputes have suffered heavy injustices, with some of them having been put in prison for contesting land, while their land is lost to CPP officials,” Mr. Chankea said. “So they cast their vote for the opposition, hoping they will be treated fairly before the law to regain rights to their land.”

In neighboring Kompong Speu province, the site of a 5000-strong garment worker protest outside the Taiwanese-owned Sabrina Garment factory on National Road 4 in May and June as well as a number of prominent land grabs, the opposition almost doubled their vote from 94,010 in 2008 to 186,966. The CPP’s vote fell slightly in Kompong Speu from 191,181 to 180,103, allowing the opposition to increase their share of the province’s six seats from their single seat won in 2008 to three.

Community Legal Education Center labor program Director Moeun Tola said that high-ranking members of the CPP were now too tied up with their own investments in garment factories to deal with workers’ grievances properly.

“Eighty dollars was not enough,” he said, referring to the increase in garment workers’ minimum wage from $61, which was introduced by Mr. Hun Sen in the months leading up the election.

“The key issue for the workers in places like Kompong Speu is employment agencies employing on short-term contracts,” he said.

“If they stand up and protest that, they face criminal convictions or shootings like in Bavet, where the perpetrator is still at large.”

CNRP chief whip Son Chhay put the dramatic shift in the opposition’s fortunes in the province down to changing levels of confidence in the opposition party among the people.

“We should have won seats in these places a long time ago. In Kompong Speu, there’s been problems for the last 15 years, not just this election,” Mr. Chhay said. “The difference is now we see people are no longer scared to vote for the opposition party.”

“Places like Svay Rieng too were under the very tight control of [late National Police Commissioner] Hok Lundy,” he added. “Even though people suffered so much and wanted to vote for the opposition, the system of control was so strong they had no chance.

Mr. Springer, of the University of Victoria, said that impunity and land-grabbing issues had not shaken the ruling party’s grip in every province.

“There are a few provinces where land grabs were prominent and the CPP still won their seat—like Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri—but these are provinces with only one seat,” Mr. Springer said.

“These were areas where the opposition did not campaign, where information was hard to get out and they had to rely on word-of-mouth for campaigning.”

The ruling CPP increased its take of votes in Ratanakkiri province by more than a third from 29,201 in 2008 to 39,473 last Sunday, while the opposition increased its meager take of 4,837 in 2008 to a still feeble 7,811.

Similar figures in neighboring Mondolkiri province show the CPP increasing its take by half from 12,861 to 17,220, and the opposition almost doubling its 2008 take of 2,147 votes to 4,248.

Ratanakkiri has been the site of a number of cases of land grabs and apparent cases of impunity, according to rights groups.

Since the creation of the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle in 2004, intended to bring economic development to highland border provinces like Ratanakkiri, larges expanses of forestland in the province used by ethnic minorities have been converted into rubber, cassava, pepper and cashew plantations.

In one of the more prominent cases of land grabbing connected to the CPP, a group of ethnic Jarai villagers in O’Yadaw district have fought for the past nine years over 450 hectares of land taken from them by a company owned by the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon.

The battered body of a journalist, who had written about officials’ involvement in the illegal timber trade in the province, was also found stuffed into the trunk of his Toyota Camry on a cashew plantation in the province in September last year.

“One reason we didn’t get any seats here is that many of our supporters didn’t find their names on voter lists and were not allowed to vote,” Eam Oeun, the CNRP’s lawmaker candidate for Ratanakkiri province said.

“The second reason is…the ruling party distributing gifts to voters during the campaign period and intimidating people not to go vote for [the opposition] party or they would face a harder life,” he said.

“People were especially scared of claims by CPP officials that there could be war,” Mr. Oeun said.

Kratie province—the home of Snuol district, one of the hottest in the country for cases of land grabbing—also saw little tangible change, with the opposition failing to pick up a seat.

Across the country in Pailin province, where the CPP also won the province’s single available seat, the opposition saw a doubling of its vote count, receiving 8,959 votes compared to a 4,315 in 2008.

The CNRP’s candidate for the province, Soung Sophorn, agreed that his party was at a disadvantage in the province due to its focus on provinces with more seats, but he said that more people in Pailin voted for the opposition as they were tired of years of intimidation by party leaders and extortion of local businesses by CPP leaders.

“We were not able to do much campaigning in this province, but we still received a decent increase of ballots for our party,” he said, also attributing the rise to a number of land disputes involving government officials.

In Pursat province, home to half of a controversial 315,028 hectare economic land concession granted in 2000 to Pheapimex Group—owned by the wife of CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin—the CNRP’s vote also increased by almost half.

While the CPP enlarged their take by about 10 percent in the province that has seen large protests by the villagers who lost land and had their property destroyed by Pheapimix, the shift in the proportion of votes allowed the opposition to win one of the four seats available, according to the preliminary results-marking only a small improvement over 2008, when the CPP won all four seats.

In some of the country’s other single-seat provinces, that have also seen their fair share of land-grabbing cases and accusations of impunity, the CNRP also failed to come anywhere close to challenging the CPP, despite increasing their vote marginally in Stung Treng (5,303 in 2008 to 6,962 last week) and Koh Kong (8,033 to 11,017) and more than doubling its vote takes in Kep (1,867 to 4,165), Oddar Meanchey (9,012 to 21,875) and Preah Vihear (9,260 to 19,051).

NGO Forum’s Mr. Sam Ath said that the variety of results suggested that voters in different provinces placed differing levels of importance on different issues.

“There are many issues. People have concerns about land issues, violence, but also about services, and this all impacts on the results of the election,” he said.

“Sometimes people who have seen land disputes, when they get access to information about these, they can choose to vote for a different party.”

“But it’s a problem of information, and a problem of knowledge to analyze information,” he added. “In the provinces, people don’t have the same access to information.”

Mr. Tola of CLEC agreed that a large part of the difference across provinces with similar cases of land-grabbing, impunity, or corruption, was also the level of access to news.

“Some people are still affected by these things, but they only receive one-sided news from the radio and TV,” he said.

“The people in Phnom Penh and Kompong Cham who have access to social media can compare who they should vote for, and that’s where we’ve seen all the difference.”

The preliminary results released last week suggest such difference has instead been widespread over the country, with the opposition picking up two seats in Kampot, Kandal and Takeo, winning one seat more in Battambang and remaining stable in Banteay Meanchey and Preah Sihanouk provinces.

Kampong Cham province, which has the largest population of any province, and where the opposition turned its six out of 18 seats won in 2008 to 10 this time, the CNRP managed to pick up 456,395 votes—a 60 percent increase the combined 284,497 the opposition parties had won in 2008.

In Phnom Penh, the site of two of the highest-profile evictions in recent years at Boeng Kak and Borei Keila, the opposition devastated the ruling party, taking 381,756 to the CPP’s 254,210 to take seven of the 12 seats.

This was a vast improvement on the 201,311 the two opposition parties took against the CPP’s 245,799, a result that had given the opposition parties only five of the seats.

In Siem Reap, another of the country’s more urbanized provinces that has also seen a large number of well-publicized land disputes, the CNRP improved on the opposition’s vote of 78,278 in 2008 to take 140,739 on Sunday.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Wednesday that while the CPP was at a disadvantage when it came to campaigning over issues of injustice, the ruling party would adapt to what it learned during last month’s election campaign.

“The opposition was in a good position to say they will do everything, so they just pick any issue they like and make promises, but we’re still in the lead, the majority,” he said.

“The CPP commits not just words, we commit with actions and it takes time to show results,” he said.

“We expect for those voters to come back in 2018,” he added. “We learn from the people—we’ve learned from this campaign to push very quickly for social justice to provide better justice to the people.”

Mr. Springer agreed that the loss of votes tied to injustices such as land grabbing and impunity for officials would act as a wake up call for the CPP in the next mandate, as the party explores why it lost so many seats last Sunday.

“The days of the old CPP governance are over: the official results aren’t in, but the people have spoken,” he said.

“There’s finally a viable opposition—the CPP are going to have to deal with that.”

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