Outside of Battambang’s O’Char Commune Hall, a middle-aged woman approaches opposition Commune Chief Sin Rozeth complaining that her name has been taken off a list making her eligible for benefits for the poor.
The hall has closed early for a public holiday, but Rozeth tells the woman calmly that she will look into the issue. She makes a phone call to an assistant, and the matter is resolved within the hour.
Four months after taking office in a landslide opposition victory in O’Char commune, the 31-year-old has built a reputation for getting things done in her commune – despite facing alleged pushback and roadblocks from rivals in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
But Rozeth and the 488 other Cambodia National Rescue Party commune chiefs – as well as thousands of commune councillors around the country – may be on borrowed time, with the Supreme Court expected to decide this month if the main opposition will be dissolved. If it is, every commune seat will be given to the party with the next most votes, meaning the vast majority, including Rozeth’s seat, would revert to the CPP. Speaking late last month, however, Rozeth was calm in the face of this prospect.
“Just like all young people in the country, I don’t think I can only serve my country by holding an elected office,” she said, adding that her ouster wouldn’t spell the end of her public service.
Just yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen renewed his calls for opposition members to defect, saying they would be allowed to hold office for the CPP after doing so. Such an offer holds no appeal for Rozeth, however.
“The people voted for the CNRP, so if I join the CPP just to keep my position that means I will be betraying the will of the people, the intention of their vote,” she said.
The 31-year-old entered public service at a young age, after losing two brothers to disease and seeing two more go missing in Thailand 25 years ago while avoiding compulsory military service. She had her first introduction to the opposition when her mother took a job as a cook and janitor at the Battambang headquarters of CNRP-precursor the Sam Rainsy Party.
“I was working as a housemaid for a year before I joined my mother there,” she said. Within two years, at 16, she began working for the party. One of her formative political memories was witnessing former CNRP President Sam Rainsy intervene on behalf of a young man transporting rice who she said was about to be arrested for honking his horn illegally near a hospital.
Her first goal was to help the poor and sick access public services. “At the hospital I would bargain the price down, sometimes to nothing,” she said.
Viewed as a rising star within the CNRP, Rozeth was the youngest to run for the opposition ballot in 2012, when she earned a seat as deputy commune chief. Five years later, her ticket received just under two-thirds of the votes in O’Char against a ruling party candidate 34 years her senior, all with a court case involving her alleged involvement in a land dispute protest hanging over her head.
In her four months in office, Rozeth has implemented several policies that are small in nature but came with tangible benefits for her constituency. All services involving documents are now free, and she insists on efficiency – with no bribery – in such bureaucratic procedures.
“When we come to her to have any document done, she always does it quickly without asking for any fee or tip,” said 58-year-old labourer Hang Siem, who went on to gush about Rozeth’s oratory skills.
According to Rozeth, since making documents free, the commune has registered over 700 births and marriages – the majority of which had taken place under the previous administration without official acknowledgment. Her move to make the services free, however, drew the attention of the provincial government.
On August 3, she received a letter from then-Battambang Provincial Governor Chan Sophal alleging procedural misconduct, since certain services have minimum fees set by the Interior Ministry. At the time, Rozeth promised to reimburse the provincial government for all losses, and as of last week was still not charging for documents.
Just two days earlier, Rozeth had received a similar warning letter for keeping copies of financial records held by the commune clerk, and for hiring office assistants. She said that she keeps her own records to protect herself from liability.
Rozeth is also paying the utility bills herself, as well as buying supplies, as she contends that she was never allocated an operating budget despite multiple requests to both the town and provincial government. Newly appointed Provincial Governor Nguon Ratanak, she said, responded that the annual approximately $2,000 administrative budget had been dispensed to the previous CPP commune chief, Hou Khoeun, prior to the election. It was incumbent on him to hand over the finances by mid-October, she remembers him writing.
Neither Khoeun, who is currently the deputy commune chief, nor Ratanak could be reached for comment.
Battambang Provincial administrative officer Chum Bunrith said such a claim would require a thorough investigation to verify, and he denied that Rozeth had ever taken up budgetary concerns with city government.
Meanwhile, he claimed decisions to change fees, or make hires, “have to be adopted by both the chief and the whole council”. But, Rozeth notes, “Since becoming the commune chief, the four elected commune councillors from the [CPP] have never sat down to work at the same table as me.”
Among the allegations made against her in five separate letters from the provincial government are claims that she discriminates against the ruling party.
But Rozeth tells a different story, of obstructionism both before and after becoming head of the commune. When she was deputy, she said, she sat at a concrete table outside the office where villagers would wait for services because she hadn’t been supplied a proper desk.
Upon assuming office, she alleged the outgoing administration left documents to rot on the floor of a back room, and had absconded with the desks and chairs. She says she relied on donations from supporters to buy new desks and filing cabinets, and to refurbish the office, installing such basics as light fixtures and fans.
The commune hall itself is a dilapidated prewar structure, with a section of the second floor sagging. When it rains, she said, water leaks into the office.
Toun Chheng, who has worked as a clerk at the commune hall since 2013, expressed sorrow at the prospect of Rozeth being forced out of office.
“I would be sorry for her if she really had to resign, because we have worked together for quite a while,” he said. Because of his role, Chheng is unaffiliated with a particular party, but his leanings are apparent. “Although we have different political ideas, we are working together to serve the people.”
Chheng was reluctant to speak of improvements under Rozeth, but did acknowledge the efficiency in day-to-day operations. “The old chief had worked for [the people] for a long time, and there must have been some problems,” he said. “But, to be honest, Rozeth makes the services very fast and free.”
CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua – who was an early champion of Rozeth, and was recently forced to flee the country – said that the many administrative complaints made against Rozeth were part of an effort “to teach her a lesson for taking her own initiatives”, and a way to discredit her for her political affiliation, age and gender.
Sochua also alleged that ruling party lawmaker Chheang Vun, who shares Sochua and Rozeth’s constituency in Battambang, had orchestrated the harassment in an attempt to “demonstrate to Battambang CPP he’s in control of the city”.
“She is an outstanding commune chief who makes CPP chiefs look incompetent,” she added, noting in a message that “the group of local CPP male officials at that level . . . [held] that commune since 2002 but did close to nothing”.
Vun, reached for comment yesterday, denied obstructionism and scoffed at the proposition that he and Rozeth are remotely comparable.
“The one who is obstructing her work is not me. I can do my work for the people anywhere in Battambang because I am the people’s representative . . . While she is not capable enough, she cannot accuse people like that,” he said.
Vun went on to warn a reporter to “not be like the Cambodia Daily”, creating arguments among officials by asking them to respond to one another’s allegations. “Don’t compare me to Rozeth,” he said. “We are different like the land and the sky.”