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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A chance to have a say in Anlong Veng

A chance to have a say in Anlong Veng


Savong Chen, assistant district chief in Anlong Veng and a former Khmer Rouge high commander, did not vote in the 1998 election but says this time he will vote for ëthe party that can help peopleí. On the table is a photo of him shaking hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Some residents of Anlong Veng got to vote in the 1998 general election, but it's

difficult to work out how many. Staff at the National Election Committee in Phnom

Penh say the best place to get that information is the Commune Election Committee

office in Anlong Veng itself. But no one in the Khmer Rouge's last stronghold - the

commune chief included - knows of any such office.

The defections of former KR supremo Ta Mok's key commanders in April 1998 left just

enough time to organize some voters and materials for the July poll. The districts

of Anlong Veng and Tabeng Prasat got to cast ballots as part of the electoral process

in Siem Reap province.

The fading KR had far less of an impact on the 1998 elections than in 1993, when

it turned its back on the Paris Peace Accords and used guerrilla attacks to cause

major disruptions. But rebels were still able to hamper voting in Anlong Veng in


"Ta Mok was willing to destroy the election plan so that people in Anlong Veng

couldn't vote," says Hong Post, the chief of Anlong Veng's district commission

for Funcinpec. He quit the KR for the royalists shortly before the 1998 poll.

One week before the vote, two people were killed when election officials bringing

polling materials by tractor to Tabeng Prasat district were attacked by the KR. Two

ballot boxes and 2,800 ballot papers went missing. On election day, at least seven

civilians were killed when the KR attacked O'Kung Binh village in Anlong Veng district.

These days, Ta Mok is locked up in prison, and the town hospital that bears his name

is a functioning historical site. Thousands of those who fought under the brutal

one-legged commander will soon cast their first national ballots.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has put his stamp on the sleepy place that Ta Mok took great

pains to cultivate as a homestead. Among the improvements: the Hun Sen Primary School,

which sits next to Ta Mok Secondary School; a swathe of land that has been cleared

for a MobiTel communications tower; and a colorful, animal-adorned traffic circle

which sits in the middle of Anlong Veng's major intersection.

The former stronghold will also have more of a voice in the National Assembly since

it is just one of five districts in Oddar Meanchey. The country's newest province

will have its own Assembly seat, rather than being included as part of neighboring

Siem Reap.

"In 1998, I'd just finished fighting but it hadn't stopped properly," says

Savong Chen, assistant chief of Anlong Veng district. "The situation now is

very good."

He says residents believe the area is now ready for its first real national election.

Chen adds about 30,000 people defected to the government after the 1998 vote. Many

people, including Chen who was a senior commander in the KR until his 1998 defection,

will be casting ballots for the first time.

"I remember the election in 1998 but I didn't know what we were voting for,"

says Chen. "On voting day I didn't go to vote because I was sick in the hospital."

He glances at statistics in a notebook that features Mickey and Minnie Mouse on its

cover. Nearly 10,000 have registered to vote for 2003, leaving only 900 potential

voters who will miss out this time. These days, he says, everyone understands the

electoral process.

"The people here are very, very happy because we have peace," says Chen.

"They're free to go anywhere they want and to do business."

At the height of his anti-capitalist paranoia, Ta Mok cracked down on any private

enterprise or self-initiative. He even stopped his car and cursed a group of children

as traitors when he saw them picking mangoes from a tree on their way to school.

Almost all the residents questioned by the Post say the best changes are freedom

to travel and conduct business.

Commune chief Hong Sath, who also defected in 1998 and supports the Cambodian People's

Party (CPP), says the biggest problems in the community stem from the fact that the

fighting finished only recently.

"[The people] have no way to make money other than farming, and forested land

can't be cleared yet because of mines," he says.

Sath predicts that voters in the former stronghold will remember who vanquished Ta

Mok when it comes time to cast their ballots. He says other parties make promises

of land and economic prosperity.

"The CPP say nothing because they think promises aren't good. They only say:

'Who makes you live comfortably?' and 'Who saved you before?'" states Sath.

But even though there is peace, which has brought better roads, new schools and health

centers, there are voices of dissent against the ruling CPP. The district head of

the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) is Oun Srean. He says life is better than it

was under the KR but complains that the government has fostered an elite within the


"The CPP allows people to do business but we don't have complete freedom and

democracy," says Srean, a medic for the KR at Preah Vihear temple until shortly

after the 1998 elections. "The poorest people can't have equal rights to do

business like rich people."

Srean, who is also the second deputy commune chief, has a number of complaints about

the way Sath and his fellow party members run the commune council. He also says that

in the run-up to the election, some ruling party officials threatened to kill or

seize the land of those residents who don't pledge their support to the CPP. However

he concedes that no such actions have yet been taken.

Two SRP signboards have been stolen and another one was chopped to bits. A fourth

was doused in gasoline, although the owner of the property came out in time to chase

away the night-time raiders before they could light it.

"Another threat to the people is that they're told if they don't vote for the

CPP, the CPP will see them on a computer. So people are very scared - so they won't

vote for who they like," says Srean.

Local laborer Saman moved to Anlong Veng after the 1998 election. Based on previous

experiences, the opposition supporter expects there will be substantial oppression

ahead of the election. He says the ruling party buys votes and uses intimidation


While it is clear that a culture of opposition is taking shape, Saman says most people

don't feel comfortable speaking out against the government.

"People do not talk because they are scared of [the CPP's] threats," he


But those woes are not limited to the opposition. Funcinpec district commission chief

Hong Post says the Funcinpec sign outside his store has twice been ripped down, and

now has had paint thrown on it.

Post voted for Funcinpec in 1998 after integration, but kept his decision quiet at

the time. He says the electoral process in Anlong Veng, limited as it was, had some

flaws as few election monitors oversaw the ballot.

Both he and his sister have been threatened. By way of proof he produces a handwritten

warning letter which is signed: "From Me, Ministry of National Defense, Military

Region 4, 21 March 2003." The letter accuses him of working for Funcinpec while

drawing money from the CPP.

"I will wait for another month," the anonymous writer warned. "If

you don't quit I will burn your house and shoot you."

Despite such threats, Post says he wants the different parties to work together.

That way they can do more for the residents.

The threats do not stop there either. Huot Sambath, who was a senior SRP official

in Sihanoukville, moved to Anlong Veng and dissociated himself from the opposition.

He too received a death threat recently, he says, when a soldier named Rom and his

two associates burned Sambath's shop in front of his house on May 3.

Sambath says the men's action stemmed not just from his former affiliation to the

SRP, but also from the fact that he is new in town and can more easily make a living

than them.

"Now the situation is so bad they plan to hurt my family," says Sambath

who filed a complaint with the police the following day. "They want to kill


A quick poll of business owners along the town's main road shows that many say they

were not in the KR, and like Sambath arrived recently. And when asked who will win

the election, most answer: the CPP.

"The people in Anlong Veng understand who gave them school buildings, roads

and helped them to have peace," says assistant district chief Chen.

That is something even opposition counselor Srean concedes: "I don't know which

party will win the 2003 election, but the CPP has some money and builds schools,

so I think maybe they will win."



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