A Place People Rarely Go, Soam Commune Wide Open in Politics, Trickery.
pang pong village, Takeo province – Ieng Siem removed his old Funcinpec signboard last July when 20 vigilantes came looking for him after the ouster of co-premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
His home had already been a victim of a grenade attack during the 1993 elections. So after his July “arrest,” the signboard quickly became part of his roof. A pair of Funcinpec posters were moved behind paper-thin pink-and-white sheets hung around his bed.
But when Ieng Siem, Funcinpec’s coordinator in Soam commune, finally got the courage in May to build a new signboard, he was surprised to get an offer to use trees owned by one of his relatives—the CPP’s commune chief.
“I think he gave it to me because he is my relative,” said Ieng Siem, who is related through marriage to Commune Chief Long Thay.
“We do not want to fight with each other,” Long Thay said of the opposition, referred to in Soam as “anti-parties.” “We drink together and everything is fine.”
That relationship may be the crucible of political life in Soam, a 12-village commune in Kiri Vong district framed by tree-pocked mountains, Route 2 and the Vietnamese border. Political trickery and terrorism exist—most intensely against Funcinpec followers—but the distance from Phnom Penh has created a kind of nonchalance in which political freedoms and interesting camaraderies thrive.
If party leaders are to be believed, Soam commune’s tiny villages—and Kiri Vong district itself—are being heavily contested by five of the 13 parties in Takeo, and even more parties have signboards dotting the landscape.
But in a place where loyalties are linked to catch phrases and traditions, those in Soam say they want an election done fairly for a change, and one that will boost farming and trade and let them be.
“I do not care who wins in the next election,” said Kiev Lim, 63, the CPP village chief in Pang Pong who lives two houses away from Funcinpec’s coordinator. “If the CPP wins, let us win. If we lose, let us lose. But we are all Khmer together.”
Soam’s border with Vietnam is blended by rice fields and denoted by small concrete stumps. Cambodian peasants here take charcoal and rice into Vietnam to trade for vegetables. The Vietnamese in turn sell water for Cambodians to support their rice fields.
“This is Vietnamese water. We buy it for 40,000 riel for the dry season,” Long Thornh, CPP village chief of Srei Kmornh village, says as he walks through his village’s rice fields near the border. He treks about a kilometer past long wisps of green rice stock, yelling to his villagers in the fields. An elderly man with blue shorts, khaki green shirt and weather-beaten fedora guides his two cows through the fields. Khmer women covered with kramas and conical hats pull and plant rice.
Suddenly, by memory, Long Thornh stops and crouches. Among tall grass sits a concrete molding about a half-meter tall. This is the border.
Ieng Siem, however, said he never makes the trip for trade with Vietnam. He said CPP organizers have cut off access to Funcinpec supporters, giving a list of “anti-party” members to Vietnamese border police. If they cross, Ieng Siem said, they are arrested.
Ieng Siem and his family said they also don’t get any of the gifts CPP officials bring when they come to Soam.
“They care less if Funcinpec people have a problem,” Ieng Siem said. “If we have a land dispute, they don’t care.”
He said he’s also facing an uphill battle in campaigning. CPP officials often change the birth dates of younger villages loyal to their party so those just under 18 can vote, Ieng Siem said.
“I just want something to be fair,” Ieng Siem said. “Even if Funcinpec loses, I would agree 100 percent.”
Srey Samen, a Sam Rainsy supporter in Kirichong Koah village in Soam, said he has also seen the age altering practice. Katy Grant, the European Union’s election observer in the province, said the practice is a sporadic problem with all parties throughout Takeo.
“But I’d be careful judging that as a political issue,” said Grant, who has made one trip to the Kiri Vong area. Many villagers don’t know their exact birth dates, and others have purchased identities to get jobs, she said.
CPP officials at various levels in the area said everyone is treated fairly. “We do not do anything wrong,” Long Thay said. “[Opposition members] are not afraid of any situation. In my commune, the political situation is calm.”
Pang Pong Chief Kiev Lim said CPP gifts “are for the general people,” adding he does not begrudge his neighbor’s royalist loyalties.
“It does not divide us,” Kiev Lim said. “It is the right of the human being.”
Long Thay said the real problem opposition parties have is “the government helps people in the commune. The CPP helps people in the commune. The anti parties, they do not help. When the anti-parties come they do not offer us any ideas. That’s why no one follows them.”
The EU’S Grant said there had been no reports to her about cutting off border trade. And a handful of supporters from opposition parties said they received little to no harassment.
Srey Saman described “indirect pressure” from CPP members that doesn’t really affect him. Often, CPP members will lecture him or denigrate his political party, he said.
“They say this party is an anti-party,“ Srey Samen said. “When [the CPP] brings gifts, I don’t get the gifts. But that is OK, the CPP does not have this village.”
Thorn Chhurn, Ieng Siem’s wife and blood-relative to the CPP commune chief, said the CPP in Soam is difficult to beat because of that party’s reputation as the victors over the Khmer Rouge. It hits home here more than other regions of the country, since the Cambodians near the Vietnamese border residents endured the most vicious purges and gave birth to some of the CPP’s highest officials, including Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin.
“We will vote for the CPP. They are the ones who saved us from Pol Pot. Who else is there?” Srei Kmornh villager Uon Kann said, surrounded by his family.
“Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin—three men, only one idea,” Long Thornh said with obvious pride.
But every party here campaigns on a similar slogans and memories. Sam Rainsy supporters said their leader represents “real democracy.” Funcinpec and Reastr Niyum backers said they love King Norodom Sihanouk.
“What I want is the king to take over the country,” said Thorn Chhurn, explaining why she supports Funcinpec. “Even though I may die, I don’t care. I want the King to come back.”
“I want to support only the King,” said Svay Sophannra, a 41-year-old mother of six whose home in Triay Tum Lob village, Preah Bath Chom Chum commune, is on the outskirts of Soam. She works for the Neastr Riyum, and a banner for the party flies over a bamboo bed in front of her home where she and her family were sitting, shaded, earlier this month.
Svay Sophannra’s said her husband, a Funcinpec supporter and Navy officer in Sihanoukville, was killed by the Khmer Rouge four years ago. She said she wanted a party that loved the King and supports real democracy, but admitted her allegiance had as much to do with providing for her children.
“I joined for the job,” she said.
While their signboards clearly dominate the area, CPP representatives concede they have significant competition from the Sam Rainsy, Sangkum Thmei and Son Sann parties. Along with those, Reastr Niyum and Funcinpec signs were also visible.
Long Thay said about 85 percent of his commune supports the CPP, and Long Thornh says he will deliver at least 85 percent of the 50 families in his village to the CPP. Kiev Lim says he has 193 of 234 registered voters in Pang Pong pledging CPP. Sok An, co-minister at the Council of Ministers, is the CPP’s top candidate here and posters bearing his face were in almost every home seen in the commune.
But these CPP officials were more eager to tout the fact the commune is almost completely registered than to talk about who will vote for whom. “Right now the people say they will support CPP,” Long Thornh said. “When they election comes, maybe they won’t. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Srey Samen said Sam Rainsy is the preeminent challenger to the CPP.
“In Kiri Vong district, there are 12 communes,” Srey Samen said. “One is completely dedicated to Sam Rainsy. All the rest are divided.“
Funcinpec activist Ieng Siem said his numbers in Soam are growing. He brought out a book of names with pages of people who have pledged support to the prince. Ieng Siem estimates he has the loyalty of about 37 of the roughly 55 families he’s talked to in Pang Pong, Soam and Pril villages, where Funcinpec’s support is the greatest.
Even with CPP commune chief’s offer, Ieng Siem says he sleeps restlessly with his new Funcinpec sign prominently at his backroad house in Pang Pong village. In fact, he didn’t use his relative’s trees. The wood came from fellow Funcinpec members from Phnom Penh.
“I was worried Funcinpec would investigate me” if I took the trees, Ieng Siem said.