sihanoukville – Tes Soth was one of 120 women to travel here from their rural villages last Thursday to discuss their participation in the communal elections, expected to take place next year.
The 53-year-old said she was willing to listen to what speakers from the Sam Rainsy Party and its close ally, the US-based International Republican Institute, had to say about female candidacy.
Opposition party official Ke Sovannaroth told forum participants she would like women to make up at least 30 percent of the election’s candidates for commune leadership.
But even as the discussion took a positive note, Tes Soth—like many who have experienced past elections in Cambodia—remained pessimistic.
“Just coming here, some of my neighbors said bad things to frighten me—especially from the chief of the commune where I live,” Tes Soth said, refusing to name her home village for fear of reprisal after she returned.
“I got a lot of threats during the 1993 and 1998 elections. That’s why I think I’m not going to [run] in these communal election campaigns,” she said.
Many say the logistical difficulties of holding elections in each of Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes can be overcome. The larger problem, Cambodian and foreign election monitors claim, is the institutionalized intimidation practiced by many commune chiefs—most of whom have had sole control of their communes since the early 1980s.
This intimidation, according to observers, will be especially felt by women, who for the first time are being widely encouraged by Cambodia’s major parties to run for political posts.
Even with commune elections not expected to be held before mid-2001, monitors say women who have expressed an interest in politics—particularly in the more remote communes—have been discouraged from participating.
“Women are afraid,” according to Thun Saray, head of one of Cambodia’s three main election monitoring organizations. Though he said his group has not spoken directly with potential female candidates, Thun Saray said discussions with both Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen have indicated among women both ignorance of election rights and an unwillingness to enter what has historically been the male-dominated political arena.
“Most importantly, women should have confidence,” said monitor and human rights leader Kek Galabru.
“Culturally, traditionally men have been put above women. We need a big revolution in the minds of women,” she said.
Many women who have shown interest in the elections have been told they would often have to work alone at night, while others have been asked by commune leaders to worry instead about their children, who they claim could be at risk with a politically active mother, monitors say.
Some, like Tes Soth, only have to look back on the fallout from their activities during the national elections two years ago.
“I was threatened by gunmen as I gained [experience] during the last elections. These sorts of experiences frightened me all the time as I tried to practice democracy in society,” she said.
Other women, and even organizers, at last week’s forum agreed that intimidation would perhaps be the biggest obstacle to be overcome by election candidates.
But one young woman who didn’t want to be named said she would run for a seat on the commune council regardless of threats.
“I must struggle with all my best to run for a win,” she said.
While both national election watchdogs and smaller localized NGOs report some success in grooming women for political candidacy, no firm figures have been tallied yet on the number of women likely to run.
CPP and Funcinpec also have encouraged female participation both in the elections and other aspects of government, but government officials rejected a plan to place a minimum quota on the number of female candidates, saying that would violate Cambodia’s constitution.