The streets of Phnom Penh are alive with the sounds of campaign music and political slogans this week, but in the remote areas of Stung Treng province, which are home to many of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities, it is eerily quiet.
In villages of Sesan district, where minorities such as the Kouy, Pnorng, Prao and Laotian traditionally live off the land, the democratic spirit is hardly thriving.
June 3 commune council elections are fast approaching, but almost everyone here – at least those who can speak Khmer – says when it comes to voting, they simply do what they are told.
In Kbal Romeas commune’s Sre Sranok village, 45-year-old Prao ethnic villager Oeun Chantho, flashing coal black teeth, said she was too busy with farming to pay attention to the election.
“The village chief told me not to be worried about this, and on the election day, I’ll just tick the party that I used to vote for. So that tick will be on the logo of the flower-scattering angel as before,” she said, referring to the insignia of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
She said she knew practically nothing about other parties that were running but had received clear instructions from the village chief to vote for the CPP.
“Our chief gave us salt, sarongs and told us that we have to vote for who offer happiness to us, so that we know who offer us peace - only our village chief’s party,” she said.
As her neighbour, 32-year-old Chan Tha, walked through the forest on her way to grow rice, her baby tied to her with a scarf, she shyly said that none of the surrounding minority villagers knew anything at all about the commune and district elections.
“I have never missed an election, but when I voted, I followed the commune chief. When the day of the election arrived, the commune chief brought me a voting card, and I ticked what he told me,” she said.
That man is 70-year-old CPP Kbal Romeas commune chief La Boeur, who said his constituency was made up of 181 indigenous families who were illiterate and had to be educated about the election.
“We told their village chiefs to explain to them which parties the logos belong to, which number, so that they can select that logo when they go to vote,” he said.
Though some villagers are familiar with logos other than the CPP, notably the candlelight of Cambodia’s main opposition force, the Sam Rainsy Party, few of them even know the name of these democratic alternatives.
Kuy Chantha Lak, director of the provincial election committee, said the SRP and CPP were contesting in all 34 communes in Stung Treng, while Funcinpec had put up candidates in 20 and the Norodom Ranariddh Party was competing in 14.
“We have shared election ballots to all the villagers, and the chief of the villages have advertised, and indigenous people in Kbal Romeas have become more aware about the election because they can speak good Khmer now,” he said.
But Hou Sam Ol, provincial investigator for rights group Adhoc in Stung Treng, said most indigenous still understood almost nothing about the elections, a problem that needed to be addressed.
“The provincial election committee should set up a program to educate those people to understand more about the parties,” he said.
A total of 10 parties are competing in the commune elections, in which councilors are voted in through a proportional voting system that sees seats allocated on the basis of the number of votes received by each party.
The councils, led by a chief, then serve the interests of the people and perform tasks delegated by the government, but they also appoint village chiefs and on a national level vote in the vast majority of Cambodia’s upper house, the Senate, which has no real legislative power.
A total of 11,353 seats were contested in 1,621 communes during the 2007 commune elections, 70 per cent of which were won by the CPP, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
On May 9, the National Election Committee announced it had so far distributed 6,944,993 voting cards to 9,203,493 eligible voters.
The commune elections were introduced in 2002 in an attempted to decentralise Cambodia’s political system.
But none of that is of much interest to 36-year-old Phnong indigenous minority villager Te Chounh, who is content to follow his chief’s advice that the party with the angel is the one that can prevent war.
“I have voted two times already and I don’t want to change the picture, because that picture makes me grow up, have a motorcycle, hospital and it is not hard like before,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]