phnom preuk district, Battambang province – For men who refuse to follow the political line in this remote former Khmer Rouge stronghold, the upcoming commune elections have brought harassment, fear and arrest, opposition candidates say.
For women like Yin Ya, the elections have brought something else: opportunity.
“The men want to be candidates, but they are probably scared,” said Yin Ya, explaining why nine of the 13 Funcinpec candidates in her commune are women. “They are worried about being killed or arrested. That’s why they keep quiet. And that’s why women have decided to be candidates.
“People always criticize women and say they can’t do it….We want to show it’s not like what they are saying. We want to show that women are strong and have the ability to lead.”
Throughout this district, located a jarring four-hour ride from the provincial capital of Battambang, commune candidate lists for both the Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy parties are disproportionately female. Both men and women candidates here admit it’s because women are stepping forward where men dare not tread.
“The problem is that if men who are involved in politics show their face too much in the commune, it can be very dangerous,” said Ek Chhea, explaining why seven of 11 Sam Rainsy Party candidates in his commune for the Feb 3 election are women. “Women stay at home, which is safer.”
Nearly 40 percent of Funcinpec candidates in Phnom Preuk are female, compared to nearly 14 percent nationwide. The CPP’s slate in the district is 24 percent women, compared to 13 percent nationwide.
As for the Sam Rainsy Party, its female-dominated slate in Ek Chhea’s commune of Chak Kray is the only Sam Rainsy slate in the district. Party activists say they were too intimidated to run in the other five communes—despite the fact the Sam Rainsy Party won a solid 38.6 percent of the vote in the district during the 1998 national elections, with Funcinpec coming in second.
In Phnom Preuk disrict, villagers lay mats full of beans on the roads for passing trucks and motos to grind under their wheels. Villagers slash and burn their fields out of the jungle and build their shacks with thatch or clapboard. Electricity is almost unknown.
The sense of remoteness is enhanced by the mountainous, jagged rock outcrops that surround the district on all sides like a worn-down set of teeth. The district’s single rutted road is the only way in or out, a fact not lost on those who might consider speaking out against the prevailing order, dominated by CPP-appointed village and commune chiefs.
“We’re very distant from the town,” said Prak Savuth, who hoisted what appears to be the only Sam Rainsy Party sign still standing in the district. “It would be difficult to escape if something happens.”
The success of the Sam Rainsy Party in the 1998 elections may reflect the widespread antipathy of former Khmer Rouge cadres towards the party of the government, which they fought against for so long. But local authorities are trying to ensure that the voting in the last national election does not translate into a change in local leadership, opposition candidates say. Political intimidation in the district has ranged from rumor to direct threats and arrests, they claim.
Soon after he erected his sign, Prak Savuth said, the rumors began. “I heard I would be arrested. They said they would let things calm down and then do the arrest,” he said. “This wasn’t directly said to me; it was from other people in the village.”
Yin Ya said four people in the district have been arrested and accused of membership in the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, the guerrilla group that launched a botched coup attempt last year.
“One Funcinpec member had just erected his signpost and was arrested two or three days later,” Yin Ya said. “That sent a message.”
The man, known to Yin Ya and fellow female candidate Sao Nang only as Soth, was later released. “But the military police said, ‘Why did they release Soth?’” Sao Nang said. “He is the enemy. So they said that if he appears, they would kill him.” Soth has remained under virtual house arrest, Sao Nang said.
Ek Chhea said all known Sam Rainsy members were summoned to interrogations before “soldiers and local authorities” who asked them, among other things, if they were Cambodian Freedom Fighters. “They summoned me twice and asked me not to join the Sam Rainsy Party,” Ek Chhea said. “If I decided to join, they said they would not be responsible for problems in the future.
“They said not to put up signboards because they could not ensure my security. But security is the duty of the local authorities.”
Ek Chhea put up a signboard anyway. On Oct 14, an angry mob of soldiers—a few of them toting rifles—rioted in front of his home, tearing down his sign.
Ek Chhea fled to Sam Rainsy headquarters in Battambang, where he stayed for two weeks. Now he says he does not even dare to leave the house to harvest his rice field. He is also afraid authorities will confiscate his land.
But he has not withdrawn his candidacy, nor has his next-door neighbor, female Sam Rainsy candidate Niv Salim, 32. Sitting next to Ek Chhea in front of her shack, Niv Salim gently refuted Ek Chhea’s assertion that many of the women candidates volunteered their names at their husband’s request. “My husband did not tell me to join,” she said. “I joined by myself. My husband is only a farmer.”
Chak Kray commune chief Long Kim Heang denied political activism was being repressed in his commune. He said the Sam Rainsy party won the commune in 1998, then neglected it until this election season, when Sam Rainsy parliamentarian Chim Channy, visiting the district to rally support, “made problems” and insulted villagers who “wanted to demonstrate against the signboard.”
Funcinpec candidate Sao Nang’s husband was a party activist, but he died two months ago. Even with five children to take care of, Sao Nang has not withdrawn her name from the candidate list.
“Despite the intimidation, I want us all to work together, not just one party,” she said. “I want to show other people how to stand up against oppression. If we do not stand up to oppression, they will oppress us more. If we are not strong, they will arrest us easily.”
This area was plagued by guerrilla warfare between the Khmer Rouge and the government until 1996, and politics and war are sometimes still equated. Now that the political process is meant to be peaceful, this mindset has given women an advantage: they are seen