CPP member Hang Phon, 55, chief of Sday commune's Pro Theat village for a quarter of a century, at last faces an election of sorts.
In a blinding burst of sunlight, the shaded footpath emerges from the forest and
into the front yard of local village chief Hang Phon.
It's just a short hike from Highway 21 in Koh Thom district, Kandal province, but
here, underneath his traditional, stilted wooden home, Phon explains to the Post
a system of governance far removed from political processes found two hours away
in Phnom Penh.
At 55, Phon has been the chief of Sday commune's Pro Theat village for a quarter
of a century. He says his main responsibility is helping villagers with irrigation
projects. Aside from that, he calls meetings every month or so at the village pagoda,
and does his best to settle social squabbles and property disputes.
"My job is to bring villagers together and listen to what their problems and
priorities are - I call the meetings at the pagoda and report back to the commune
council," Phon said. "I am the same as the other villagers; if I don't
work hard in the rice fields, I won't have any food to eat."
Phon, a flinty, humorous father of five, is the closest government official for 440
far-flung, rural families, totaling 1,774 people. When well-paid political analysts
use the term "grassroots," this what they mean. He's the lowest rung of
Cambodia's political structure and for his labors he earns $3 each month.
"It's not even enough for gasoline to go and attend our meetings," he said.
Since 1979 all village chiefs have been appointed from above within the ruling Cambodian
People's Party (until 1991 known as the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea).
But, in the next few weeks, Phon, and 13,000 other village chiefs and deputy village
chiefs, will be selected by the country's 1,621 commune councils.
The change in selection process has thrust the village chief's role into the midst
of a political fray that many see as a precursor to the 2007 commune elections and
the 2008 parliamentary election.
For the first time in 27 years opposition party candidates will compete with the
ruling CPP for village chief positions. The process has been hailed by some as a
step forward, but criticized as undemocratic by SRP leader Sam Rainsy and the local
election monitoring NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL).
"Decentralization is an illusion if village chiefs are not democratically selected
- and the way they are selected now is very undemocratic," Rainsy said by phone
from Paris. "The CPP controls 99 percent of the commune councils, so strictly
speaking the CPP is in a position to elect 99 percent of the village chiefs. This
is totally undemocratic and does not respect the rights of the minority."
Rainsy argues that the new system of selecting a village chief by absolute majority
of a commune council will keep power in the hands of the ruling CPP and ignore the
needs of villagers. Commune council members were most recently elected by general
suffrage in February 2002.
"Only the local leaders know the needs of the people and know the best ways
of responding to the needs of the grassroots citizens. Therefore, decentralization
is necessary to promote development," Rainsy said. "We need to take a close
look at the village chief selection process."
The Ministry of Interior (MoI) issued instructions on March 1 to commune councilors
for the selection of village chiefs, saying they must be chosen by majority vote
by commune councilors.
The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) has gained two village chief positions out
of the five in Phnom Penh's Boeng Tumpun commune in a pilot selection on April 27-28,
said Sam Rithy Duong Hak, SRP chief of cabinet.
The Boeng Tumpun commune selection was a pilot process held to iron out any problems
ahead of the village chief selections throughout the rest of the country.
Sak Setha, director-general of the MoI's Department of Administration, told the Post
on May 16 that the pilot selection had gone smoothly, and that each commune council
had been given electoral training.
He said the selection of village chiefs in the rest of the country will begin in
June and continue for a month.
"I think that the selection of village chiefs will go well and will be completed
within the next month," Setha said.
No NGO oversight
Koul Panha, COMFREL executive director, said he will not send staff to observe the
He said the MoI should allow the people in the villages to participate in the election
of their village chiefs. Many villagers have deep affection for their local leaders
and are in a better position to select them, he said.
"We believe the selection of village chiefs without the participation of the
people in the villages will not reflect the will of the people," Panha said.
He said political parties may put pressure on their appointed village chiefs to ensure
results in the commune elections in 2007 and national elections in 2008.
"I see the selection of the village chiefs as just an organization of political
party infrastructure," Panha said. "The influence of political parties
will break unity at the local level because the village chief will serve the interests
of his party."
Rainsy said that having village chiefs and deputy village chiefs from the CPP, Funcinpec
and SRP would encourage checks and balances at the grassroots level and reduce political
violence against the opposition.
He said the living conditions of villagers are directly dependent on the village
chief, who has strong power at local level.
"When the village chief is not happy with someone, that person can face intimidation,
insecurity and even death," Rainsy said. "The village chief can create
discrimination in the village and deny or grant gifts, water and legal documents."
"We need a formula that reflects the national reconciliation among all political
parties. Democracy is not just about respecting the majority - the majority also
needs to respect the minority and take its ideas and demands into consideration,"
"It is the first time in history for the SRP to play a role of democracy to
fight [with the ruling party] to get power at the grassroots level," Rainsy
But Panha said the CPP will control more than 95 percent of villages.
A village chief's wait
Phon, a CPP member, said the residents of Pro Theat village nominated a list of ten
candidates on May 5, which was then sent to the commune council for final selection.
He admits that the new appointment process has altered village politics, but for
now he will just wait for the results.
"It will mean a big change. We will need to do more, and do a better job, to
gain support because now there are three parties," Phon said. "We have
to consider the different parties now. There is more competition now to get support
from the villagers."
"The village chief is a very powerful figure for the grassroots citizen,"
Rainsy said. "He is in charge of everyday life - security, food distribution
and issuing legal documents. If you are not on good terms with him, it can mean big
But Phon downplays his responsibilities, and laughs as he shares some of the disputes
that have come his way. Villagers have sought his counsel over everything from marital
problems to the positioning of fence posts.
"I like being village chief about half the time. It's fifty-fifty. Sometimes,
it's just too much work," he said. "I don't really want to do it any more,
but if I get selected I will continue to do my job."