A year ago, Chea Minea began marshaling his forces, well in advance of the commune elections.
It’s an army motivated by love and not money, as none of his 128 workers will get paid a single riel.
“We don’t have any money,” said Chea Minea, the Siem Reap province coordinator for the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections. “People work out of their homes.”
Provincial headquarters, he said, is his house in Siem Reap town, from which he oversees the deployment of trained workers in each of the 100 communes in Siem Reap’s 12 districts.
So far, he said, there isn’t that much to do. The latest estimates are that the commune election law will finally be passed before the end of this year, although it is not yet on the agenda of the National Assembly session.
Government leaders said this week they may push back work on the election law in order to debate and pass the Khmer Rouge tribunal law.
That means the earliest the elections can be held in Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes will be in 2001, at least two years later than originally planned.
“People are interested in the elections, even though they are far away,” Chea Minea said. “Some people don’t like their commune chiefs, or they don’t like the government’s policies. They want a change.”
The elections will mark the first time in modern Cambodian history that voters will have a say in who runs the communes.
Election workers across the country say they sense a great desire for change among the people, and that voters want the election held soon.
But independent observers are afraid that some commune leaders, unchallenged for decades, may resort to intimidation or violence to retain their hold on power.
It’s happened before, Chea Minea said. “In the 1998 [national] elections, some village chiefs and commune chiefs threatened the villagers,” he said.
A Funcinpec commune election candidate and his wife were killed six months ago in Kampot province and Sam Rainsy Party officials regularly accuse CPP members of intimidating opposition activists.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has charged that the dominant CPP wants to stall the elections as long as possible for fear of losing strength across Cambodia.
The CPP has a lot to lose. In Siem Reap, for example, about 70 percent of the electorate votes CPP; 20 percent Funcinpec; and about 5 percent, the Sam Rainsy Party.
And certainly, random interviews with Cambodian voters indicate some dissatisfaction with the CPP. Voters in the northwest in particular say they are eager for a change in leadership.
Thorng Preang, a farmer in Thmar Kuol village, Battambang province, said his commune has had the same chief since 1979 and the area has seen no progress.
He also still resents the times he was forced to cut trees and dig canals at the border by local officials, and does not forget the friends and relatives who were hurt and killed by land mines.
“So most people, not only me, still remember what happened in the past,” he said, and now, they want new leadership.
Um Ra, who owns a bread shop in the Sisophon district of Banteay Meanchey province, said he is fed up with both his village chief and his commune chief.
They haven’t done a thing to develop the area or take care of the people, he said, but instead pester the villagers for money. “If I don’t give them [money], I will face obstacles with my business,” he said. “I worry at night about what they will do to my shop if they are not happy with me.”
Sok Sarith, 41, of Phum Traing, Sla Kram commune in Siem Reap, also said it’s time for new leadership.
“If a new candidate is good and fair and finds justice for the people, I would consider him,” he said. “We already know about the old [chief], so we want only a new one.”
He said the dominant party’s behavior during the recent flooding angered many people.
“The roads were flooded and the aid agencies gave donations, and yet the chief of this district gave the aid only to his friends,” he said bitterly.
Motioning toward a child sleeping on a mat in his house, he said, “This child’s parents were flooded out, and they got nothing.”
The boy is his nephew, he said, living with him until his parents can repair their flood-damaged home. “In the village where they live, more than 100 families were flooded out, and only one got a donation,” he said.
No one has threatened him about the elections yet, he said, but he and his friends remain wary of who may be paying attention. “When we are fishing, we ask each other which party we are voting for, but nobody answers,” he said. “Because we are worried about security.”
His neighbor, Luy Lom, 59, said she thinks she’ll just sit this one out. “Now, times are peaceful, and there is no violence,” she said. “Anyone can be a leader.”
She said she voted Funcinpec in 1998 and was crushed when the CPP retained power. “So now I’m lazy. I don’t want to vote again.”
However, she said, she hopes the fact that the fighting has ended will inspire more and better people to seek office.
“Before, people were afraid,” she said. “If they aren’t killing people as they were before, more people will try to be leaders.”