Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Local issues uppermost in many voters' minds

Local issues uppermost in many voters' minds

Local issues uppermost in many voters' minds

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.

Other farmers

from Kroch Chhmar, Me Muth, Kang Meas and Srey Santhor districts were equally

worried about banana, soybean, pepper, corn and sugar cane.

"After

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

children.

"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

riel.

"I don't vote," she said, "and I never did. It is not going to

change anything."

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.

"We

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

rights violations.

"During the 1997 coup, uniformed men involved in some

of the most violent incidents came from this region," recalled one political

observer.

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

city.

"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.

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