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Politics by an urban lake

Politics by an urban lake


"There has been injustice today. I have seen village chiefs

standing near the polling booths telling the villagers how to vote - and family members

of the village chiefs as well."

Mu Sochua, Secretary-general of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, on the campaign trail in Bathey, Kampong Cham province. The SRP fielded six percent fewer female candidates in the 2007 commune council elections than it did in 2002. The CPP increased their number of female candidates by four percent.

When Hul Thol arrived to cast his vote at the Phnom Penh Railway station polling

booth, a fracas broke out.

A woman in the voting booth shouted at Thol, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) candidate

for Boeng Kak's Srah Chak commune, and told him he shouldn't be there. Taken aback,

Thol explained he had come to fulfill his legal right to vote. Then, an SRP official

with Thol identified the woman as a village chief, and said she shouldn't be there.

A loud argument ensued. When the woman spied a Post's photographer she grabbed angrily

at the camera. She was then forced away from the polling station.

Later, the Post learned the woman was a district chief [Me Krom] of Village 4 in

the Boeng Kak area, and by law she was required to be 100 meters from the polling


A NICFEC observer explained the problem.

"Village chief [Me Phum] is what we call them in the provinces," the observer

said. "But in the city there are village chiefs and group chiefs [Me Krom].

So they just say they didn't know the law applied to them."

The incident was a minor flash point in the contested battle for Srah Chak commune.

On February 6, City Hall signed over a 130-hectare block of the Boeng Kak area to

a private company. The little known developer Shukaku Inc paid $79 million for the

99-year leasehold - a mere $0.60 per square meter - an unstipulated portion of which

is to be used to compensate the 4,250 families affected by the deal. Both City Hall

and Cambodian People's Party (CPP) Senator and business tycoon Lao Meng Khin, the

director of Shukaku Inc, have refused to comment on the development.

Rights groups and NGOs have declared the deal illegal and say it will lead to the

largest displacement of people in Cambodia since the privatization of land in 1989.

Many of the families affected by the development reside in the Srah Chak commune

and have lived there for more than 10 years.

Srah Chak represents in a microcosm one of the most critical issues effecting the

Kingdom: land disputes. The partisan platforms the major parties have adopted to

address this ongoing issue played themselves out in Boeng Kak in the lead up to the

election. Promises were made, accusations were laid, and at times the politics was


Before the election Prime Minister Hun Sen, of the ruling CPP, declared war on land

grabbers and spoke at length about the injustice of officials seizing land from communities.

This followed earlier comments by the Prime Minister about the possibility of a farmers'

revolution in Cambodia if land disputes continued to inflame tensions.

Hun Sen never referred to Boeng Kak, but many voters interviewed on election day

alluded to the Prime Minister's rhetoric and expressed hopes he would intervene.

By election day's end the CPP had held sway in Srah Chak commune. But the voting

was close. Preliminary results showed CPP received 5,752 votes to SRP's 4,665. Incumbent

CPP commune chief Chhay Thirith retained his position, with the CPP holding the position

of deputy commune chief. The second deputy position went to SRP. The commune council

was split between six CPP and five SRP councilors.

According to election observers and voters interviewed on the day, Hul Thol's infraction

with the group chief at the railway station was just one incident among many of village

officials interfering in the vote.

At the polls at Wat Neakavan Kindergarten, Vong Socheat, 52, is outspoken about neutrality

of the vote.

"There has been injustice today," she said. "I have seen village chiefs

standing near the polling booths telling the villagers how to vote - and family members

of the village chiefs as well."

Socheat said the village chiefs pressured the voters.

"They say if you don't vote CPP you will not get help in the village. You will

not get good service. They say if there are fires you won't get help," she said.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, a local election

watch dog, said the mere presence of village officials - who are predominantly CPP

- compromised the vote.

"It can affect the feeling of the voter even though the voter knows that the

ballot is secret," he said. "In this election my observers saw many cases

of village chiefs or commune chiefs standing in or near the polling booths."

Panha said election monitors often didn't know who the village chiefs were, and had

to rely on voters or other officials to point them out.

Thol said he was disappointed with the election results and said he would file a

complaint with the Commune Election Committee (CEC) about the interference of village

officials. He said he was concerned about the low turnout of voters - about 60 percent

- which he said may have been due to vote buying and harassment. Thol said the election

campaign had been fought unfairly and cited "obstruction" by the ruling


"When I went to a village there were CPP at the beginning of the road and at

the end of the road," he said. "The commune chief is CPP and the officials

are CPP and wherever we went to campaign there were always CPP officials there."

When contacted by the Post to comment on his victory, Thirith said he was "too


Both parties had campaigned vociferously on the lake development issue.

Hul Thol, supported by SRP lawmakers Ho Vann and Son Chhay, had on two separate occasions

led groups of villagers to City Hall to demand a meeting with Governor Kep Chuktema

to discuss the deal. Chuktema refused.

During the campaign Thol promised to "tear up the contract" and renegotiate

the deal.

"The municipality must negotiate and work with the people step by step on this

development," he said March 30.

In turn, Thirith accused SRP of politicizing the development to gain political capital

and said the SRP were trying to frighten lakeside residents. Thirith said he had

lodged a complaint with the CEC against SRP for sparking "chaos" in the

election campaign.

Thirith maintained that the contract signed by the municipality was in accordance

with Hun Sen's stated policy of "development within the place," which means

the removal of residents to housing within the development area, rather than relocation

to the suburbs.

Thirith declared that there was "no problem" with the deal and the people

affected would be moved to an apartment complex similar to that built for the residents

of the Borei Keila development.

Many of the Srah Chak voters interviewed on election day, said the Boeng Kak development

was a pivotal campaign issue, but opinion was divided on which party to trust.

At the railway station polls, Pil Mareth, 55, who has lived in the Boeng Kak area

since 1979, summed up the split.

"CPP just said to us that it is no real problem," she said. "They

say if we vote for them they will 'develop within the place' and we will get fair

compensation. But the SRP say the Borei Keila plan is a trick. They say they will

take the land and sell it at market price and we will be left out in the suburbs

like the people from Tonle Bassac."

Mareth would not be drawn on which party she voted for, but said she hoped Hun Sen

would intervene in the land dispute.

A 56-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said she was worried about the

development but had faith in the law.

"If we worry it is just the same as if we don't worry," she said. "And

according to the land law, if we have lived on our land for more than five years

we have title to the land."

She said in voting she was more concerned with continuity than change and said only

CPP could improve life in the commune.

"In my house I know where my toilet is, where my bed is, where all my things

are," she said. "But if I step into my neighbor's house it is strange.

I don't know anything. So I'm afraid of other parties getting the position of commune


At the polls at the International Dubai Mosque, voters were more open to change.

Cheang Pong, 39, has lived in a house on stilts in the middle of Boeng Kak since

1980. He is part of a small lake community of about 40 who farm the trokun that grows

abundantly in the lake. His family and the rest of his community do not have land

titles and are likely to lose everything under the lease deal.

"If they want to develop the lake area they must give fair compensation,"

he said. "CPP will just use armed forces to take the people away, but SRP said

they would intervene and help the people get a fair deal."

When asked if he thought the voting had been fair he hesitated.

"I think there's been about 70 percent justice," he said.


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