Savong Chen, assistant district chief in Anlong Veng and a former Khmer Rouge high commander, did not vote in the 1998 election but says this time he will vote for ëthe party that can help peopleí. On the table is a photo of him shaking hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Some residents of Anlong Veng got to vote in the 1998 general election, but it's
difficult to work out how many. Staff at the National Election Committee in Phnom
Penh say the best place to get that information is the Commune Election Committee
office in Anlong Veng itself. But no one in the Khmer Rouge's last stronghold - the
commune chief included - knows of any such office.
The defections of former KR supremo Ta Mok's key commanders in April 1998 left just
enough time to organize some voters and materials for the July poll. The districts
of Anlong Veng and Tabeng Prasat got to cast ballots as part of the electoral process
in Siem Reap province.
The fading KR had far less of an impact on the 1998 elections than in 1993, when
it turned its back on the Paris Peace Accords and used guerrilla attacks to cause
major disruptions. But rebels were still able to hamper voting in Anlong Veng in
"Ta Mok was willing to destroy the election plan so that people in Anlong Veng
couldn't vote," says Hong Post, the chief of Anlong Veng's district commission
for Funcinpec. He quit the KR for the royalists shortly before the 1998 poll.
One week before the vote, two people were killed when election officials bringing
polling materials by tractor to Tabeng Prasat district were attacked by the KR. Two
ballot boxes and 2,800 ballot papers went missing. On election day, at least seven
civilians were killed when the KR attacked O'Kung Binh village in Anlong Veng district.
These days, Ta Mok is locked up in prison, and the town hospital that bears his name
is a functioning historical site. Thousands of those who fought under the brutal
one-legged commander will soon cast their first national ballots.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has put his stamp on the sleepy place that Ta Mok took great
pains to cultivate as a homestead. Among the improvements: the Hun Sen Primary School,
which sits next to Ta Mok Secondary School; a swathe of land that has been cleared
for a MobiTel communications tower; and a colorful, animal-adorned traffic circle
which sits in the middle of Anlong Veng's major intersection.
The former stronghold will also have more of a voice in the National Assembly since
it is just one of five districts in Oddar Meanchey. The country's newest province
will have its own Assembly seat, rather than being included as part of neighboring
"In 1998, I'd just finished fighting but it hadn't stopped properly," says
Savong Chen, assistant chief of Anlong Veng district. "The situation now is
He says residents believe the area is now ready for its first real national election.
Chen adds about 30,000 people defected to the government after the 1998 vote. Many
people, including Chen who was a senior commander in the KR until his 1998 defection,
will be casting ballots for the first time.
"I remember the election in 1998 but I didn't know what we were voting for,"
says Chen. "On voting day I didn't go to vote because I was sick in the hospital."
He glances at statistics in a notebook that features Mickey and Minnie Mouse on its
cover. Nearly 10,000 have registered to vote for 2003, leaving only 900 potential
voters who will miss out this time. These days, he says, everyone understands the
"The people here are very, very happy because we have peace," says Chen.
"They're free to go anywhere they want and to do business."
At the height of his anti-capitalist paranoia, Ta Mok cracked down on any private
enterprise or self-initiative. He even stopped his car and cursed a group of children
as traitors when he saw them picking mangoes from a tree on their way to school.
Almost all the residents questioned by the Post say the best changes are freedom
to travel and conduct business.
Commune chief Hong Sath, who also defected in 1998 and supports the Cambodian People's
Party (CPP), says the biggest problems in the community stem from the fact that the
fighting finished only recently.
"[The people] have no way to make money other than farming, and forested land
can't be cleared yet because of mines," he says.
Sath predicts that voters in the former stronghold will remember who vanquished Ta
Mok when it comes time to cast their ballots. He says other parties make promises
of land and economic prosperity.
"The CPP say nothing because they think promises aren't good. They only say:
'Who makes you live comfortably?' and 'Who saved you before?'" states Sath.
But even though there is peace, which has brought better roads, new schools and health
centers, there are voices of dissent against the ruling CPP. The district head of
the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) is Oun Srean. He says life is better than it
was under the KR but complains that the government has fostered an elite within the
"The CPP allows people to do business but we don't have complete freedom and
democracy," says Srean, a medic for the KR at Preah Vihear temple until shortly
after the 1998 elections. "The poorest people can't have equal rights to do
business like rich people."
Srean, who is also the second deputy commune chief, has a number of complaints about
the way Sath and his fellow party members run the commune council. He also says that
in the run-up to the election, some ruling party officials threatened to kill or
seize the land of those residents who don't pledge their support to the CPP. However
he concedes that no such actions have yet been taken.
Two SRP signboards have been stolen and another one was chopped to bits. A fourth
was doused in gasoline, although the owner of the property came out in time to chase
away the night-time raiders before they could light it.
"Another threat to the people is that they're told if they don't vote for the
CPP, the CPP will see them on a computer. So people are very scared - so they won't
vote for who they like," says Srean.
Local laborer Saman moved to Anlong Veng after the 1998 election. Based on previous
experiences, the opposition supporter expects there will be substantial oppression
ahead of the election. He says the ruling party buys votes and uses intimidation
While it is clear that a culture of opposition is taking shape, Saman says most people
don't feel comfortable speaking out against the government.
"People do not talk because they are scared of [the CPP's] threats," he
But those woes are not limited to the opposition. Funcinpec district commission chief
Hong Post says the Funcinpec sign outside his store has twice been ripped down, and
now has had paint thrown on it.
Post voted for Funcinpec in 1998 after integration, but kept his decision quiet at
the time. He says the electoral process in Anlong Veng, limited as it was, had some
flaws as few election monitors oversaw the ballot.
Both he and his sister have been threatened. By way of proof he produces a handwritten
warning letter which is signed: "From Me, Ministry of National Defense, Military
Region 4, 21 March 2003." The letter accuses him of working for Funcinpec while
drawing money from the CPP.
"I will wait for another month," the anonymous writer warned. "If
you don't quit I will burn your house and shoot you."
Despite such threats, Post says he wants the different parties to work together.
That way they can do more for the residents.
The threats do not stop there either. Huot Sambath, who was a senior SRP official
in Sihanoukville, moved to Anlong Veng and dissociated himself from the opposition.
He too received a death threat recently, he says, when a soldier named Rom and his
two associates burned Sambath's shop in front of his house on May 3.
Sambath says the men's action stemmed not just from his former affiliation to the
SRP, but also from the fact that he is new in town and can more easily make a living
"Now the situation is so bad they plan to hurt my family," says Sambath
who filed a complaint with the police the following day. "They want to kill
A quick poll of business owners along the town's main road shows that many say they
were not in the KR, and like Sambath arrived recently. And when asked who will win
the election, most answer: the CPP.
"The people in Anlong Veng understand who gave them school buildings, roads
and helped them to have peace," says assistant district chief Chen.
That is something even opposition counselor Srean concedes: "I don't know which
party will win the 2003 election, but the CPP has some money and builds schools,
so I think maybe they will win."