Villagers in Land Dispute Might Boycott Vote

Ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri are threatening to boycott the July 27 national election because of land disputes throughout the province.

Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said rumblings of a boycott are being heard, as there are dozens of land-grabbing complaints lodged with Adhoc and the provincial court, which involve “powerful and wealthy” CPP members.

Many of the minority villagers who are threatening to participate in the election boycott are CPP supporters themselves, he added.

“They are warning that they will not go to vote, in order to alert the CPP that they must take immediate action against land grabbers, otherwise [the CPP] will lose numerous votes,” Pen Bonnar said by telephone.

The hilltribe members are choos­ing indirect political action because they know it “is breaking the law if they use violence to resolve the matter,” he added.

Khim Dor, a Tampuon ethnic-minority villager, said Wednesday that she has found herself torn over the land grabbing issue and the election. Struggling in court with a private company over 200-hectares of disputed land in Lum­phat district’s Batang commune, Khim Dor said she initially decided against voting in the election.

“I was willing to vote, but then I hesitated to do so when I started having this problem over disputed land with powerful and rich guys,” she said.

Khim Dor, however, said efforts by Adhoc to educate villages about the importance of voting had changed her mind.

“Now I am ready to go vote,” she said.

“But I heard from other people in my community who are not happy voting,” she added.

Pen Chhun Dy, president of the Ratanakkiri provincial election committee, said by phone Wed­nesday that he did not believe the boycott threats would come to pass.

“I strongly believe those people will go to vote on voting day,” he said, “because there exist many education programs, and those people also have experience via previous elections.”

Even so, Pen Chhun Dy acknow­­ledged that the number of people who voted in Ratanakkiri in last year’s commune election was basically no larger than the number who turned out for the 2003 national election, despite a growing pool of potential voters.

In the 2007 commune election, 37,552 Ratanakkiri residents voted out of the province’s 64,924 registered voters. In 2003, there were 37,216 actual voters out of the 51,969 registered voters, he said.

National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha confirmed the province’s voter numbers.

Engaging ethnic minorities in politics is generally a difficult task because of language barriers, illiteracy and longstanding cultural gender roles, said Thida Khus, director of the Committee to Promote Wo­men in Politics, at a roundtable discussion Tuesday in Phnom Penh.

CPWP has been working since May to educate Bunong, Lao and Muslim women about the importance of voting July 27 and of political participation in general.

Cambodia’s minorities need a voice, particularly in the face of the fast-paced changes to the country and their communities.

“We want these communities to become involved in policymaking because of the drastic changes that are happening so they can influence the people who are making decisions that will affect their lives,” Thida Khus said.

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