Tan Sokchan was just another tired and over-worked fruit farmer in his 50s when he made the risky decision to join ousted Finance Minister Sam Rainsy’s new opposition party in the late 1990s, outing himself as a dissenter against Hun Sen’s bellicose government.
It was only a year since the forces loyal to the prime minister had wiped out more than a hundred adversaries in the July 1997 factional fighting in Phnom Penh, and with more and more turning up dead as elections approached it was a dangerous decision to make.
A lot has changed in two decades, and come next month Sokchan, who is now 77, will be facing an entirely different and far more desirable challenge – leading his community as the new commune chief for Svay Rolum, about 20 kilometres south of the Phnom Penh city centre in Kandal province’s rural Sa’ang district.
He also sits at the northernmost point of a striking peninsula of opposition wins running through a sea of ruling party communes across the province. The seam of CNRP wins stretches along the Tonle Bassac River and National Road 21 from below the provincial capital of Takhmao through the districts of Sa’ang and Koh Thom to the Vietnamese border. Sokchan isn’t entirely certain what caused the reversal – “The people were angry with the CPP,” he suggested – but a look around the commune suggests that after decades of the CPP promising development, and of seeing neighbouring Takhmao become increasingly urban, residents were less than satisfied with the share they’d received.
If Sokchan wasn’t sure what issues propelled his victory, his ousted CPP opponent, Moeun Kong, was outright dumbfounded, saying he could not fathom why the 8,000 or so voters in his commune had – like so many others in Sa’ang and Koh Thom – suddenly turned against him after voting for the CPP for so long. “I just don’t really understand the reasons they do not support us now. If we knew what caused this, we could improve, but we did not know what’s wrong,” he said. “We were following the CPP’s policies.’’
“I do not have any excuses against what the CNRP representatives say. As the results show, the people vote for them, so it means they support them.”
Sokchan is one of about 480 chiefs elected by the CNRP across the 1,646 communes at the June 4 elections – the first at which Hun Sen’s ruling party, with its tight local-level control built up since the 1980s, won anything less than 97 percent of all communes.
In fact, while the CNRP lost large in most of Kandal – taking only 46 communes to the CPP’s 81 – it utterly dominated the two mostly rural districts of Sa’ang and Koh Thom, which stretch about 70 kilometres from Sokchan’s home to the Chrey Thom crossing into Vietnam.
In a remarkable turnaround after losing every commune in Sa’ang and Koh Thom to the CPP in 2012, the opposition this time won 11 out of Sa’ang’s 16 communes, and 10 of the 11 communes in the province’s southernmost and border-hugging Koh Thom.
Sokchan won Svay Rolum, which borders the provincial capital of Takhmao, with 53.6 percent of the vote to the CPP’s 39.9 percent, after having led the opposition Sam Rainsy Party to a resounding loss in the 2012 vote with only 37.8 percent of the vote to the CPP’s 57.2.
The new chief, who was forcibly moved to Svay Rolum from Takeo province under the Khmer Rouge and chose to settle there when Hun Sen and other Vietnamese-backed rebels overthrew the regime in 1979, also attributed the opposition’s dominance in the area to the unity of the opposition.
“In the last mandates, there were no competitors from the other parties,” he said. “On some points, the CPP did a good job and on some points did a bad job, but there were no competitors so they voted for the CPP. Now there is the CNRP as a competitor.”
Yet only five minutes away in the heavily urban Takhmao town – which borders Phnom Penh to its north and Svay Rolum to its south and administratively includes Hun Sen’s heavily fortified home – the CPP, as in much of Kandal, did much better at holding off the CNRP. The CPP held on to four of Takhmao’s six communes – even though its share of the vote in the eponymously named urban Takhmao commune, where Hun Sen voted on June 4, slipped by more than 16 percent, to 51.2 percent, this time around.
The CPP’s Kong said he was shocked by his loss given the party’s historically strong showing in Kandal, and insisted he had done his best to deliver development. “Since I took on the role of commune chief, we kept developing the whole area around the commune, and while in the past the roads were very bad, now the roads are built over with concrete,” Kong said. “We did not have any electricity before or factories, but now there’s more and more factories being established.”
But as the road leads out of Takhmao into Svay Rolum, the wide sidewalks transition into dirt shoulders, and the dense multi-storey buildings give way to low-slung, widely spaced structures.
The difference to locals was all too clear, said Duong Tola, a 37-year-old local factory representative from the independent Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions.
Tola, who was returning to Svay Rolum after spending Wednesday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court over a 2010 strike, said many of those living near the 70-kilometre stretch of National Road 21 running through Sa’ang and Koh Thom had constant exposure to areas like Takhmao. After that, it was no surprise they inevitably wanted more.
“The Takhmao area is part of the city, so it has more development than this area. In this area, even though 90 percent of the people are farmers, they believe they do not have adequate infrastructure, and the services from the communes are too slow,” Tola said.
“In this area, they want to improve the community, because it has been a long time that they have voted for the CPP but have not seen such development – especially the roads, the water supply, and everything like the market links for agriculture.”
“They want to try out a new person [to see] if a new person can provide services faster or better.”
CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s campaign pledge to provide each commune council $500,000 a year for development if the CNRP wins next year’s national election – a policy that would cost about $820 million a year, or 16 percent of the budget – was also more appealing in less-developed areas, he said.
Sokchan, the incoming commune chief, allowed the notion was indeed a possible explanation for the successes in Sa’ang and Koh Thom compared to Takhmao. In fact, he noted, he hadn’t actually campaigned himself, aside from playing a recording announcing the policy over a loudspeaker near his house.
“Now the commune councils only get about $20,000 a year, so it has been difficult to develop this commune and make it better, and the people in this commune have noticed there was not much improvement or progress under the CPP,” Sokchan said.
“Most of the people here wished to get the $500,000 to develop their own commune,” he said.
“And I expect that at the national election next year, the people here will vote for the CNRP because they still wish to get this $500,000 to develop their commune.”