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'Bullet water' and the night of the barking dogs

'Bullet water' and the night of the barking dogs

In provincial Cambodia, where fear and superstition often go hand in hand, local

rituals with a sinister edge are being performed in order to secure votes.

"About one month ago, people from three villages around here were invited to

a ceremony to drink sacred water," says a 20-year-old fruit seller from K'poh

village in Kampot.

'Drinking sacred water' in many villages is accompanied by a pledge to vote for the

ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), and a veiled threat of consequences if the

party is not re-elected. In a number of villages the water is offered with a single

bullet at the bottom of the glass.

Koul Panha of Comfrel, an election monitoring NGO, says reports of vote-swearing

ceremonies have been coming in since the registration period in January.

"This violates the election law and should be punished. There have been a lot

of complaints to the NEC and they have not intervened," he says. Rural people,

he adds, understand the threat.

"It means if there is a problem then they will use violence," he explains.

"They combine violence with religion to ensure the voter will support them."

The Kampot fruit seller fearing reprisals-"Just call me Srey Mau"-describes

the ceremony.

Around 250 villagers were summoned to the three-hour ceremony at the village chief's

house. Under the gaze of the local authorities, the district governor presided over

the event.

While incense burned, four glasses were filled from ceremonial bowls. Groups of 15

people were then ushered into the house. One by one they were told to drink from

one of the glasses and pledge support for the CPP, then given a T-shirt.

Mau claims each villager was then told: "If you are an extremist, then you will

become as liquid as the water."

Um Her, 52, has been CPP village chief of K'poh since 1996. He admits the ceremony

took place, but insists there was no coercion.

"Yes we got the people to come here, but we didn't force them, they volunteered,"

he says. "We said: 'If you're still loyal to the CPP, then come.' Then we just

lit the incense and we didn't put bullets in the water."

According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which has recorded numerous

incidents of a similar nature, it is not illegal to seek a pledge, only to force

it.

On that question Mau paints a different picture to her village chief.

"No one refused to go, because the village chief came to each family and said

anyone who is registered to vote must come to the ceremony," she says. That

included supporters of Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

Ngeam Dara, an SRP supporter from a nearby village, says the authorities did not

come to his village, but he knows many people who were compelled to go: "They

just invite the CPP supporters and the poor villagers who don't understand or don't

support anyone."

And, says Mau, the ceremony is an effective means of guaranteeing votes, particularly

if villagers believe it is not ordinary water, but taken from the temple: "Some

villagers believe they will die if they change their vote, because they have sworn

their allegiance."

But village chief Her disagrees: "It's just ordinary rainwater and there is

no pressure. All people have different ideas, so they don't have to follow the pledge.

People will vote for the CPP because they build roads, schools and pagodas."

The Communities for Democracy report from CCHR records that compulsory vote-swearing

ceremonies have taken place in 21 districts across nine provinces.

Participants at CCHR workshops mentioned "concern about being forced to swear

support for a particular party ... [by the] ... drinking of 'sacred' water".

CCHR states that the vote-swearing ceremonies are elaborate, and employ both Buddhist

and military symbolism. There is a strong regional trend, with all reports coming

from the central and southern provinces. This, CCHR speculates, may reflect a concerted

approach to influence the most populous and vote-rich provinces.

But 'sacred water' is not the only method of mobilizing voters. One participant in

a CCHR session in Stung Treng recalled a much-repeated theme, saying that people

in his commune were told: "You will be killed if you support other parties."

There were also threats to confiscate land or evict people, refuse the children of

opposition supporters access to school, and demanding villagers' thumbprints in support

of a political party. People in eight provinces reported the threat of war "if

people vote wrong".

Such concerns, coming just five years after the end of the civil war, are still current.

A recent survey conducted by The Asia Foundation found that people's confidence in

a peaceful election has increased, but is still woefully low.

Forty-six percent of those questioned expect problems related to the election, although

the report notes this figure has decreased from 58 percent in 2000. Many others simply

do not believe they have the right to change the government.

"More than one-fifth of the electorate is afraid to use the ballot to register

its opinion," it stated, noting: "15 [percent] say it is unacceptable to

vote against the government because it is the high authority and [7 percent] are

uncertain".

CCHR noted that threats in some provinces appear to be aimed at convincing people

their votes are not secret. One Prey Veng villager said people were told: "Be

careful: they can see [who you vote for] using computers."

CCHR says there is little optimism that will improve as the election approaches.

Villagers felt vote-buying and intimidation would continue until the last minute.

And although campaigning is banned on July 26, the day before polling day, villagers

said that was traditionally when the most intense pressure was exerted.

The night before the election is known as the 'night of the barking dogs' when local

officials go door-to-door distributing gifts, money or threats. Given the reports'

findings, it seems many rural people will enter the election booths more worried

about the night's bite than its bark.

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