Welcome to CPP country. On the roads snaking up from Banlung through Ratanakkiri’s lush mountain passes up to O’Yadav district, samdechs peer down from billboards and farmers in dirt-streaked party shirts speed past on dilapidated motorbikes.
It is perhaps a measure of how successful the ruling party has been here that campaigning was nil on a recent visit. Homes and cars are not blanketed with stickers, and no one stands on the street blasting music and screaming “number four”.
A machine as large and well-oiled as this has no need for such campaigning mainstays.
On Thursday, the single opposition candidate who may have posed something of a nuisance in this election was swiftly nullified when he defected to the ruling party in a televised press conference.
Ensconced in an office blanketed with luxury wood products, the CPP chief of Lumchor commune, Sev Thon, grew wide-eyed when a reporter told him about the defection.
“I hadn’t heard the news, but it’s good,” Thon said, grinning. “We welcome him with both arms; we do not discriminate.”
One hand resting on a stack of party circulars, double-sided printouts that explain how much the CPP has achieved for the country since 1979, Thon took pains to play the role of neutral civil servant, but freely admitted his commune swayed heavily toward the ruling party.
“In previous times, most people supported the CPP. For this election, well, we have to wait and see who they support. But in the commune, I solved the land dispute problem, so I think they will support CPP.”
CPP country may be getting torn apart by rampant economic land concessions (ELCs), protracted land disputes and the insatiable Cambodian and Vietnamese quest for rubber, but in the eyes of many people here, that self-same party is the only solution.
For those who do not feel that way, there are persuasion and rewards – and for those who continue to do so, threats and disenfranchisement.
Thon’s commune presents the more benign and promising side of party politics: voting for the CPP as a guarantee of solving an ongoing problem.
In Lai village, some 133 families have been locked in a land dispute with a Vietnamese rubber company since 2008. The company was given a concession that allowed them to clear a community forest belonging to the Jarai villagers.
Two years later, after the land was already razed, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s student land volunteers came and measured area. Cadastral officials then ruled the company had exceeded their bounds and revoked their concession.
Today, the company continues to grow rubber on the land, employs a staff of workers and blocks villagers from what should be rightfully theirs. The commune chief, Thon, has filed complaints with the provincial court and is seeking help from higher authorities, but no enforcement has been carried out.
In the process, however, the villagers learned about the law, their rights, and – thanks to the commune and village chief – the importance voting held to solve their land dispute.
“Before, I never knew about elections. Only in this election am I interested,” said Thik, shyly. The young mother paused for a moment to puff on a banana-leaf cigarette, before nervously replying to another question. “The reason [I’m interested now] is because I had a problem with that company here,” she added before running off.
Asked which party could solve their woes, every villager who discussed the land dispute had the same reply.
“Only the CPP party can solve the dispute,” said 20-year-old Sev Thek, with an air of surety. “This is because, here, if the CPP didn’t provide health centres, there would be no health care; if the CPP didn’t provide a school, none of the people would learn Khmer. Only the CPP provides these things.”
In many ways, Lai is a model village. Residents are extremely poor but, though they have lost a sacred forest, retain access to small patches of farmland. They live in an area that hasn’t yet been stripped by development or agro-industry; homes, built by hand, are spacious – made with wood found in the forests just outside their village. In the mornings, Jarai women set out with woven baskets strapped to their backs to gather water and tend to crops of cassava and beans.
Their land dispute, though frustrating, has not proved their undoing. Instead, it has solidified their faith in the ruling party.
“People here now understand more about their rights. When they have a problem, they know to file a complaint to the authorities or NGOs. They trust the authorities to solve the problem,” village chief Racham Yea said.
Hence, he said, the unusual amount of interest this election. Asked which party he expected to win, Yea, 57, demurred before gesturing at the village hall – where an NGO worker was lecturing some 50 villagers on the forest law.
“I cannot say, but as you see, most people are wearing CPP shirts as compared with any other party. So you can guess,” he said with a wry grin.
At least eight men were clad in well-worn ruling party polo shirts. No other party paraphernalia was on display. In the back, clutching an introductory forest law booklet the NGO worker had passed out, an older Jarai woman adjusted her Bun Rany watch before nodding off.
A ninth-grade education under his belt, whip-smart Thek speaks Khmer fluently and takes a nuanced view of politics. His decision to vote CPP is well-reasoned, influenced heavily by the growth he’s seen in the village and the pains his officials have publicly taken over his land dispute.
“The old people aren’t really interested in voting,” he explained. “The young generation understands better.”
Speaking Jarai, Thek began translating for Romas Pchet – a farmer well into her 70s who flashed an embarrassed, toothless smile as she spoke.
She’s registered, he said, but she’ll just vote for whomever the village chief tells her to.
In his area, Thek said, many of the older residents will simply cast a ballot for whomever they are told. A number of the younger residents admitted in interviews that was their plan as well.
“I don’t know,” said one surly young man, Kol Romansvin, barely looking up as he loosened bolts on a broken weed whacker. “Last time, I went to vote for the party my village chief told me to. This time I’ll do the same,” he said.
“I wanted to vote for something to develop in the commune, but nothing happened, everything stayed the same,” continued Romansvin, 28. “In this community, we only support CPP; we don’t know about any other party.”
Thirty kilometres away, in Yantung commune’s Ten village, Sol Phoeun echoed that sentiment.
“I never know anything about different parties. I just follow the people to vote,” the elderly Jarai farmer said, speaking through a translator. “I registered my name because they told me to, and I will go to vote and I will vote for the CPP because my commune chief and village chief told me this.”
Indeed, it is party access that has got them so far, Lumchor commune chief Thon said.
“When people in the village have a problem, I don’t go to the district government. I go directly to the high level to get it solved. I go to the provincial government or the CPP lawmaker or the CPP provincial director.”
About a month before elections, the ruling party called all local CPP authorities to their office, he said, “and asked us what’s the problem you face in your commune”.
Carrots and sticks
As Romas Svang disembarked from his moto to greet visitors, his neighbours looked on warily. Since he became outspoken about a land dispute, some 20 families in Yatung commune’s Ten village are facing, the 47-year-old had become a pariah, he happily admitted.
“My neighbours do not come to listen to me anymore because they are afraid,” he said. “I am the only one who dares to speak out. But what I do is based on the law, and it’s just to protect our land.”
Two companies have recently laid claim to land that Svang and other villagers had farmed for a half-dozen years. When volunteer students measured the land last year, they skirted the disputed area – an action Svang maintains occurred because the land had been co-opted and sold by none other than their commune chief.
“I filed a complaint to the provincial court [against the chief],” he said. The court questioned him twice before the commune chief came to meet him.
“He threatened me, saying if the decision goes badly, he’ll come after my family.”
Many of those engaged in the land dispute with the Tan Mak and Ta Ly companies would support his actions, Svang suspects, were they not so afraid of the authorities. A month ago, he maintained, amid growing unrest over the dispute, a number of his neighbours began speaking about switching parties.
“The commune chief then took some of the money he had made from the land sale and began giving it to the villagers. Before, a lot of people supported me and wanted to change everything. Now 100 per cent support the commune and village chief.”
Provincial CPP deputy director Sok Horm denied the allegations, saying such claims were pure fantasy.
“Someone just accuses the CPP party, but we have never bought voters or put pressure on voters. Some people from other parties just accuse us of this to give us a bad image.”
The handful of people – mostly members of his extended family – who continue to support Svang’s fight appear to have been effectively blocked from voting, however. He and five family members have all had their voter documents withheld, he said, and complaints filed to higher authorities have not yet yielded a result.
“I voted for Sam Rainsy in the commune election, but this time they haven’t given me my papers, even though I registered,” said 19-year-old Soul Duy, a nephew of Svang. “I don’t know who to complain to. I’ll go on Election Day, but I don’t know what will happen, and I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to vote.”
Down the dusty roads leading from Svang’s home, villagers ducked into their houses when reporters approached, or replied in only the most taciturn of ways. Most denied that a land dispute was even ongoing.
After explaining briefly that there were “no problems” in his village, “no land dispute” and “no issues with that neighbour”, a young man bouncing his infant son on one knee and sitting in the doorway of a sparse wood house featuring an ornate rosewood door, insisted: “You can vote for the party you like.”
Asked how one decided for whom to vote, the man – who refused to give his name – grew more agitated.
“I cannot speak out loud about that," he said.
Strength in numbers
With scant exception, the only people willing to speak out loud about such things are those in the handful of CNRP-affiliated villages. Despite the CPP grip, there has indeed been enough of a groundswell by local opposition activists to switch allegiances inside a few villages.
“If you think about the whole province, a lot of people support the CPP. But if you look at the individual communities, especially in places with a land dispute, some support the CNRP,” said provincial Adhoc coordinator Chhay Thy.
Indeed, though the number remained a fraction of the CPP’s 223 commune seats, the opposition managed to increase its presence by almost 50 per cent in the past commune election, winning 30 commune council seats. After a year of increased presence of opposition at the commune level, some villages have grown more outspoken about their problems with the powerful or well-connected.
It is only with a unified bloc, however, that such activism can occur.
“In my village, we want to have freedom of expression, we want to use our rights, and we have a lot of support for each other. I think in other places, people may want to speak out, but they can’t [if they’re acting as an individual],” said Lom village representative Romas Svat.
In this Paknhai commune village, residents have become increasingly brazen in their fight against Company 72 – a firm working in an ELC owned by Men Sarun Company that is regularly in the news for encroachment protected forests. Over the past six months patrols have confiscated the keys of Company 72’s bulldozers, staged multiple protests and won rare court investigations in their favour.
When many of the CNRP-supporting villagers were told by their commune chief they weren’t on the voting list, “the village went, as a whole, to file a complaint with the provincial election committee”, Svat said. It was only in that manner that they could reach a resolution.
“Even though the forestry authorities, the village chief and commune chief come to threaten people, everyone always comes to protest,” he said.
Casting their lot with the CNRP represents an act of desperation, and a gamble, admitted Svat. If the party fails to win, there can be little hope of brokering a political compromise with the authorities they’ve been butting heads against for the better part of a year.
“After the election, if the CNRP does not win, people will lose their land,” he said.
Anatomy of a defection
With the defection of CNRP’s top lawmaker candidate Rin Kanha complete, however, that result is all but assured. In the National Assembly, a single seat is allotted to this massive, resource-rich province. Although the opposition is increasingly active here – focusing on a range of environmental and land issues – the ruling party has always held the seat.
Kanha, 32, was viewed by his could-be constituents as a rising star in the party. Svat, for instance, met with Kanha when he travelled to his commune earlier this year with senior lawmaker Son Chhay to speak with those battling Company 72.
Told of the defection a day after Kanha held a press conference in Phnom Penh denouncing the party, Svat looked aghast. “It’s really strange,” he said after several moments of silence. “I wonder how much money they bought him with.” His nephew, sitting nearby, said he’d seen the news on state TV the previous night.
“I really lost my confidence. I’ll have to see who the new lawmaker candidate is. It doesn’t make me think to vote CPP, but I just have to see the candidate,” said Romas Twin, a young party activist who planned to work as a party polling-station observer.
“I think he must be a guy who just wants money and power and doesn’t care about the people,” Twin, 27, continued. “I think he must have had pressure too.”
Eam Oeun, deputy director of the provincial CNRP office and the number two candidate on the CNRP list, said that despite Kanha’s involvement in opposition politics for 11 years, he was merely an opportunist.
“He just wanted to get the money and the power. He didn’t think about the nation,” Oeun said.
Kanha did not reply to requests for comment.
In Lumchor commune, a smattering of houses sport CNRP stickers, but each of those also play host to a CPP sticker twice the size. Both parties have come through the villages and spoken with residents, but with so many CPP party members installed in local government, it is unlikely an opposition supporter could be outspoken here – let alone drum up much support from her peers.
“Before we put a sticker on a house, of course we have to ask permission from the home owner,” the commune chief, Thon, said.
Do they ever turn him down?