Kong Khil, the village headman of Katie, scratches his head and smiles humbly when
asked if he understands the word democracy.
"It's not a Phnong word so I don't really know what it means," he said
after watching one of the United Nation's travelling election education shows.
For as long as anyone can tell you in this small village in the remote hills of northeastern
Cambodia, the Phnong have chosen their leaders by a formula based on a mixture of
age and consensus.
This process has ensured a certain amount of stability for the Phnong and other minority
tribes in the area but presents a major challenge for U.N. officials attempting to
teach them concepts like pluralistic democracy in the run up to elections scheduled
"The thing is to find a reference point they can relate to," said Robert
Sheridan, a district electoral supervisor in the north of Mondulkiri province.
"We try to make them understand that the elections mean hope and development,
that the elections mean peace, that the elections mean choice," he said
The Phnong along with about a dozen other minority tribes are among the poorest and
least educated people in Cambodia-itself one of the poorest countries in the world.
About half the tribespeople are estimated to be illiterate and many do not speak
Khmer. Most live by hunting and gathering in the region's vast forests to supplement
the one rice crop they grow each year.
Unlike the animist Kreungs further north, the Phnong have foregone animal sacrifices
and seem to favor shirts and shorts over loin cloths but a huge culture gap remains
for the electoral supervisors to bridge.
To get across his message of choice, Sheridan has his four-man Cambodian electoral
team perform comedy skits at the villages they visit.
In a typical show, an attractive young woman is wooed successively by an influential
military officer, a rich businessman and a poor farmer. Despite her parents objections
she chooses the young farmer and they live happily ever after and have lots of children
and many successful harvests.
"The harvests and many children are something they can relate to, and the other
thing is that it demonstrates they must make their own decision and not be influenced
by anybody else," Sheridan said.
In addition to the comedy routines, the teams show a U.N.-made video which explains
the electoral process and discusses human rights.
The video presentations, which are usually shown as a triple bill that may include
Tom and Jerry cartoons, a Hong Kong karate movie or Thai karaoke program have proved
"It doesn't matter if they have seen it 70 times and they know it off by heart,
if we show it a 71st time they will come back again," said Erik Aksnes, a district
electoral supervisor in southern Mondulkiri. Aksnes' nightly video presentations
often draw up to three hundred people from the surrounding forests.
For many of the tribespeople it is the first time they have seen television or a
video. Electoral supervisors in northern Rattanakiri province tell the story of a
blind man who walked a day and a half through jungle and across rivers to experience
the much talked about video shows.
While the electoral teams have been quite successful in rousing the interest of highlanders,
they admit they have little idea as to whether there message is getting through.
"How much they remember and how much they understand is another question, one
we won't know the answer to until the ballots are counted," Aksnes, said.
Mondulkiri province, where Katie is located, is one of the most isolated in Cambodia.
The only two roads into the province have fallen into disrepair and are impassable
even to four wheel drive vehicles.
Until the United Nations arrived last year in their helicopters, the only way into
the province was by ox-cart or through Vietnam.
Few newspapers reach the province and until a U.N.-operated radio station began broadcasting
last year, the only access most of the tribespeople had to any news came from government-run
Still, the price of radios and batteries remains out of reach of most of the Phnong.
While it appeared everybody in Katie and the neighboring villages were aware of the
United Nations' two billion dollar effort to bring peace to Cambodia, few knew much
about the political situation outside of their villages.
"The only party I know is Hun Sen's", said Khil, the village headman. "You
have to forgive me but I don't know much," he said.
Kha Laot a 70-year-old man from Phu Chau another Phnong village in southern Mondulkiri
said: "The only thing I know about is work, but I hope the elections will bring
peace," he said.
Most of the tribespeople said they would vote although few expected the election
to bring any real changes to their lives. A situation that pleases them.
The Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen is the clear favorite in Mondulkiri,
primarily because it has left the Phnong and other tribespeople in the northeast
"All the factions I know have made life difficult for us except Hun Sen,"
said Om, a 63-year-old Phnong from Sre Preah village.
Sihanouk and the Lon Nol troops are blamed for wiping out nearly three quarters of
the tribespeople in their attempts to crush a leftist insurgency in the 1960s.
After the Lon Nol coup in 1970, the United States escalated its bombing of the Ho
Chi Minh trail which forks its way through much of Mondulkiri.
Great swathes of the countryside are still scarred orange from the US Air Force's
heavy use of napalm and war refuse such as old artillery pieces and artillery shell
cannisters still litter the countryside.
The tribes people of the northeast, who had been loyal to the Khmer Rouge, suffered
along with the rest of Cambodia during the radical Maoist faction's disastrous three-year
attempt to turn the country into a peasant paradise.
The tribes people's traditional religious beliefs and their free-roaming life-styles
curbed in communes around Sen Monorom, the provincial capital.
Today, Mondulkiri is militarily one of the quietest in Cambodia. With a population
of only 23,000, it will send only one elected member to the 120-man national assembly.
The relative political insignificance of Mondulkiri and seeming enormity has created
a certain amount of cynicism among some of the U.N. officials who work in Sen Monorom.
"Sometimes it seems like we are doing nothing more than kicking dust in their
faces and making some of the shopkeepers in Sen Monorom rich," said one U.N.
official who asked not to be identified.
"Once we leave, nothing will change," he said.
In Chhnang, a Stiang hilltribe village with 256 registered voters, only about 50
turned out for the U.N.'s last visit in March.
Asked where the other villagers were, Meuk Si Lat, who was tending her one-year-old
son, said they had gone into the forest to look for food.
"The elections are important but eating is more important," she said.
However Meuk said that if the U.N. team had brought along its video show, all 256
villagers would have attended.
"The video is great," she said.
For the modestly-paid electoral supervisors who endure the endure the roughest conditions
and bear the largest workloads, it seems a blind faith that they are doing the right
thing that keeps them going.
"For the adults I don't know if we are succeeding," said Aksnes.
"But maybe the children will take home what they have seen and ask questions.
Maybe in the future.. who knows," he said.