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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Where Democracy is a Foreign Word

Where Democracy is a Foreign Word

Kong Khil, the village headman of Katie, scratches his head and smiles humbly when

asked if he understands the word democracy.

"It's not a Phnong word so I don't really know what it means," he said

after watching one of the United Nation's travelling election education shows.

For as long as anyone can tell you in this small village in the remote hills of northeastern

Cambodia, the Phnong have chosen their leaders by a formula based on a mixture of

age and consensus.

This process has ensured a certain amount of stability for the Phnong and other minority

tribes in the area but presents a major challenge for U.N. officials attempting to

teach them concepts like pluralistic democracy in the run up to elections scheduled

for May.

"The thing is to find a reference point they can relate to," said Robert

Sheridan, a district electoral supervisor in the north of Mondulkiri province.

"We try to make them understand that the elections mean hope and development,

that the elections mean peace, that the elections mean choice," he said

The Phnong along with about a dozen other minority tribes are among the poorest and

least educated people in Cambodia-itself one of the poorest countries in the world.

About half the tribespeople are estimated to be illiterate and many do not speak

Khmer. Most live by hunting and gathering in the region's vast forests to supplement

the one rice crop they grow each year.

Unlike the animist Kreungs further north, the Phnong have foregone animal sacrifices

and seem to favor shirts and shorts over loin cloths but a huge culture gap remains

for the electoral supervisors to bridge.

To get across his message of choice, Sheridan has his four-man Cambodian electoral

team perform comedy skits at the villages they visit.

In a typical show, an attractive young woman is wooed successively by an influential

military officer, a rich businessman and a poor farmer. Despite her parents objections

she chooses the young farmer and they live happily ever after and have lots of children

and many successful harvests.

"The harvests and many children are something they can relate to, and the other

thing is that it demonstrates they must make their own decision and not be influenced

by anybody else," Sheridan said.

In addition to the comedy routines, the teams show a U.N.-made video which explains

the electoral process and discusses human rights.

The video presentations, which are usually shown as a triple bill that may include

Tom and Jerry cartoons, a Hong Kong karate movie or Thai karaoke program have proved

immensely popular.

"It doesn't matter if they have seen it 70 times and they know it off by heart,

if we show it a 71st time they will come back again," said Erik Aksnes, a district

electoral supervisor in southern Mondulkiri. Aksnes' nightly video presentations

often draw up to three hundred people from the surrounding forests.

For many of the tribespeople it is the first time they have seen television or a

video. Electoral supervisors in northern Rattanakiri province tell the story of a

blind man who walked a day and a half through jungle and across rivers to experience

the much talked about video shows.

While the electoral teams have been quite successful in rousing the interest of highlanders,

they admit they have little idea as to whether there message is getting through.

"How much they remember and how much they understand is another question, one

we won't know the answer to until the ballots are counted," Aksnes, said.

Mondulkiri province, where Katie is located, is one of the most isolated in Cambodia.

The only two roads into the province have fallen into disrepair and are impassable

even to four wheel drive vehicles.

Until the United Nations arrived last year in their helicopters, the only way into

the province was by ox-cart or through Vietnam.

Few newspapers reach the province and until a U.N.-operated radio station began broadcasting

last year, the only access most of the tribespeople had to any news came from government-run

radio.

Still, the price of radios and batteries remains out of reach of most of the Phnong.

While it appeared everybody in Katie and the neighboring villages were aware of the

United Nations' two billion dollar effort to bring peace to Cambodia, few knew much

about the political situation outside of their villages.

"The only party I know is Hun Sen's", said Khil, the village headman. "You

have to forgive me but I don't know much," he said.

Kha Laot a 70-year-old man from Phu Chau another Phnong village in southern Mondulkiri

said: "The only thing I know about is work, but I hope the elections will bring

peace," he said.

Most of the tribespeople said they would vote although few expected the election

to bring any real changes to their lives. A situation that pleases them.

The Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen is the clear favorite in Mondulkiri,

primarily because it has left the Phnong and other tribespeople in the northeast

alone.

"All the factions I know have made life difficult for us except Hun Sen,"

said Om, a 63-year-old Phnong from Sre Preah village.

Sihanouk and the Lon Nol troops are blamed for wiping out nearly three quarters of

the tribespeople in their attempts to crush a leftist insurgency in the 1960s.

After the Lon Nol coup in 1970, the United States escalated its bombing of the Ho

Chi Minh trail which forks its way through much of Mondulkiri.

Great swathes of the countryside are still scarred orange from the US Air Force's

heavy use of napalm and war refuse such as old artillery pieces and artillery shell

cannisters still litter the countryside.

The tribes people of the northeast, who had been loyal to the Khmer Rouge, suffered

along with the rest of Cambodia during the radical Maoist faction's disastrous three-year

attempt to turn the country into a peasant paradise.

The tribes people's traditional religious beliefs and their free-roaming life-styles

curbed in communes around Sen Monorom, the provincial capital.

Today, Mondulkiri is militarily one of the quietest in Cambodia. With a population

of only 23,000, it will send only one elected member to the 120-man national assembly.

The relative political insignificance of Mondulkiri and seeming enormity has created

a certain amount of cynicism among some of the U.N. officials who work in Sen Monorom.

"Sometimes it seems like we are doing nothing more than kicking dust in their

faces and making some of the shopkeepers in Sen Monorom rich," said one U.N.

official who asked not to be identified.

"Once we leave, nothing will change," he said.

In Chhnang, a Stiang hilltribe village with 256 registered voters, only about 50

turned out for the U.N.'s last visit in March.

Asked where the other villagers were, Meuk Si Lat, who was tending her one-year-old

son, said they had gone into the forest to look for food.

"The elections are important but eating is more important," she said.

However Meuk said that if the U.N. team had brought along its video show, all 256

villagers would have attended.

"The video is great," she said.

For the modestly-paid electoral supervisors who endure the endure the roughest conditions

and bear the largest workloads, it seems a blind faith that they are doing the right

thing that keeps them going.

"For the adults I don't know if we are succeeding," said Aksnes.

"But maybe the children will take home what they have seen and ask questions.

Maybe in the future.. who knows," he said.

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