samlot district, Battambang province – If there was politicial intimidation in remote Boeung Run village during Sunday’s commune council elections, it failed to defeat the sense of joy that the local elections brought to these long-suffering people.
Villagers, chatting happily and laughing heartily when a pole meant to keep them in line fell over, arrived early at the local school to pick their new commune leaders. Food vendors came to dispense ice cream, spicy soups and sweet muffins. Children ran in packs while adults talked in the shade of a towering tree in the school’s front yard. A volleyball game broke out in mid-morning.
For a region traumatized by 35 years of war and still suffering from land mines and unexploded ordnance, the chance to have a say in local government was reason for optimism.
“I hope this brings peace,” said Mung Hi, 36, who as a younger man ran to Thailand to escape the bloodshed. “I hope this election to choose our leaders means we will have peace and no more wars.”
Turnout was high. In Oh Ton Toeum village, 519 people of the 637 eligible had already voted by noon. A nearby polling station reported 377 out of 395 eligible had already voted.
The winners will have plenty of issues to tackle.
Land mines still injure dozens of people a year in Battambang province, and despite demining work in the area, farmers are constantly sharing stories of neighbors who lost children, limbs and farm animals. Malaria strikes hard. Clean drinking water is a continual worry.
But this is also an area long identified with rebellion, and a willingness among the people to take action. It was in Samlot 35 years ago that farmers sold off huge quantities of surplus rice to the Vietnamese before the royal government could tax it. The dispute turned into a rebellion that was brutally halted by the government.
Now Samlot gets a chance to help govern itself.
“I need especially good roads and bridges,” said Sam Norn, a 36-year-old mother of two. “We need this development because it’s very important to transport fruit.”
The villages here are growing quickly. Refugees who have returned from Thai border camps have reestablished homes, crops and small businesses. Cheap housing cut from the jungle’s plentiful wood supply and abundant land keeps drawing newcomers.
During Sunday’s election, fires smoldered along the road every few houses as more land was cleared. At a new restaurant in Oh Ton Toeum village, men gathered to watch boxing on a television powered by a car battery. The first guesthouse opened in the village just a few months ago.
Amid this sense of prosperity, it seemed no one had time for
intimidation. The Oh Ton Toeum village police chief said he had no reports of security problems. Voters said they were
not pressured to vote for any political party. Activists followed an NEC regulation and draped tarps over their political signs if their
house was within a 250-meter radius of the polling station.
Nobody knew how the voting would turn out, but all seemed confident the counting would be fair.
“We have enough people and police to monitor the situation in the whole province,” said Battambang provincial police chief Heng Chantha.