In rural Cambodia, political loyalties continue to drive social relationships, making
education on democracy and secrecy of votes a challenging task.
NGOs engaged in voter education programs say that politics is so well entrenched
in the public psyche that relationships between neighbors and even relatives could
break down should their political allegiances differ.
"In otherwise close-knit village communities, farmers have to depend on each
other for utilities such as farming equipment. As politics becomes a heated subject
in [the run-up to] the commune elections, a CPP loyalist farmer could refuse to lend
his equipment to his neighbor if that neighbor happened to support the SRP,"
Hang Puthea of Nicfac says.
Nicfac's grassroots workers, he says, have come across cases in which the families
of a couple in love refused to sanction their marriage, simply because they supported
different political parties. While the farmer in the first case would travel afar
to borrow equipment from someone in his own party, the lovers in the latter case,
Puthea says, would risk their families' wrath if they dared to rebel.
The observations reinforce the recent findings of an Asia Foundation survey in which
the respondents said their friendships could end over support for different political
parties. This emphasises the urgent need to promote concepts like freedom of choice
and secrecy of vote, the foundation claims.
"Democracy is still largely a new concept in Cambodia. The public needs to learn
that an individual's vote is about making a personal choice, which does not need
to be broadcast," a provincial worker from one NGO says, adding that in small
villages, it is easy to identify who supports whom even if the voters remain quiet
about their choices.
Thun Saray of Adhoc likens the situation to an "invisible wall" dividing
Khmers on political lines to "the one that existed between the former USSR and
the USA at the height of the Cold War". Now, Saray says, if a friend decides
to support a different party, he could overnight become one of the enemy.
"We need to break this cycle of exclusion by educating people that those having
different ideas are not enemies, but fellow Khmers. Even in the same family, two
brothers or a husband and wife can have diverging opinions. We must learn to respect
that," he says. Saray, and Dr Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute of Democracy,
say that the process must start at the top with the example set by the leaders.
Meanwhile, a major part of the Australian aid of US$306,000 for the commune election
process has been handed over to the UNDP to support the NEC's voter education program.The
program will include use of posters, videos, media messages and theater productions.
How much of this exercise manages to change attitudes and instil a sense of grassroots
democracy will only be clear after the commune councils are in place.