Two hundred farmers from Chamran Phal village in Kampong Cham recently asked a
local human rights group for help with their problems. The farmers said their
hard work had been wasted: a multinational tobacco company had reneged on its
promise to buy tobacco and they had no one else to turn to.
from Kroch Chhmar, Me Muth, Kang Meas and Srey Santhor districts were equally
worried about banana, soybean, pepper, corn and sugar cane.
months of hard work in the fields, we are compelled to dump our produce in the
local markets at meager rates," they complained.
Joy Sri, a 37-year-old
housewife from Mot Khmong village in Tbom Khmum district, has a different
problem. She cannot harvest enough from her one acre field to feed her three
"We grew corn until six months ago, but that earned me only
40,000 riel a season. So we changed to rice, but the quality is terrible as we
did not have money to buy good seedlings," she said.
While her husband
works on the land ferrying water from a distant water source, she and her
mother-in-law spend the day finding firewood. That brings in around 500
"I don't vote," she said, "and I never did. It is not going to
Numerous other issues await resolution in this eastern
province. Land grabs, intimidation and violence are all common, and are issues
commonly encountered by prospective candidates in the Kingdom's most populous
state. Eighty percent of the province's 1.6 million people live on the land,
which makes rural livelihoods an emotive issue.
"Powerful men, including
armed soldiers and policemen, are involved in land grabbing at gunpoint in
villages like Chhup, Andong, Beung Ket, Krek, Memot and Peam Chang. In some
cases, foreign plantation firms use their proximity to the authorities to grab
land surrounding their plantations," a human rights worker said.
don't like politics, but we would support a candidate who can solve our
problems," said Sovan, a fisherman who supplements his meager income by fixing
punctures at the roadside.
Kampong Cham is not only the birthplace of
Prime Minister Hun Sen and former Premier Heng Samrin; it is also home to the
army's Military Region 2, the strongest power base and source of many human
"During the 1997 coup, uniformed men involved in some
of the most violent incidents came from this region," recalled one political
The region was back in the limelight during the 1998 election
after numerous cases of political violence. One-third of the 15 commune council
killings came from this province alone; last year the local governor's office
received 250 land grab complaints.
Candidates have studiously avoided
making direct reference to such contentious issues. Mang Ngoun is Funcinpec's
number two candidate for Chiro 2 commune in Thbong Khmum district and peppers
her platform speeches with promises for a better life.
"The rice crop was
destroyed last time due to lack of water," she said. When asked about violence
and land grabs she perked up, only to be silenced by a group of ten men leading
her cacophonous caravan through dusty roads.
Political analysts place
Kampong Cham at the top of the list of provinces to watch. The electoral battle
and post-election conflicts could be serious in this province with 173 communes
and 750,000 voters.
In 1998 Funcinpec bagged 8 of 18 parliamentary seats
(39% of the vote), while the CPP took 7 seats (35%). The remaining three seats
went to the SRP with 13% of the vote. The CPP will look to wrest control from
Funcinpec, and at the same time stop the SRP from making further headway.
"Considering how a swing in the ballot is linked with changes in
political fortunes, the electoral fight often turns into a hook-or-crook game,"
said the political observer, suggesting a poor performance by the CPP could
affect Heng Samrin's status. One CPP party worker reckoned that Funcinpec would
benefit strongly from its association with the King, despite the CPP's efforts
during last year's floods.
Political watchers said that the battles in
Phnom Penh and neighboring Kandal province - the Prime Minster's constituency -
would also be interesting, albeit for different reasons.
"Being close to
the seat of power and the international community, it is difficult to intimidate
or terrorize the voters in these regions. Besides, the voters here are more
politically mature and any information gets quickly circulated," said a CPP
source. He thought Funcinpec would garner 30 percent of the vote in the capital,
thanks to the King's popularity, but felt the real race would be between the CPP
and the SRP.
In the run up to the campaign, party colleagues personally
supervised public works such as unblocking drains and using local commune
offices for party activities. Eight people out of ten selected at random by the
Post gave a similar, cynical reply.
"How come [party members] behave so
well and worry about our problems only now?" asked Ly Tong, a motodup in the
"Whatever the outcome, these elections will change the internal
dynamics of all political parties. The SRP, for instance, will become a part of
a loose coalition at the commune level and will, for the first time, have to
share power with their arch foes," said one political observer. The coming
months will tell how well the parties balance personality and party conflicts
with managing resources at the grassroots level.