Tek Nim is well versed in dealing with adversity. In year nine, she dropped out of school, began working on the family farm and finally became resigned to the belief that her brightest prospect was to leave Omlaing commune, in Kampong Speu province’s Thpong district, and become a maid in Malaysia.
But when ruling Cambodian People’s Party senator Ly Yong Phat arrived in Omlaing in 2010 with a plan to kick her family and 2,000 others in the commune off their land for his sugar plantation, Nim found a reluctant calling.
“In fact, I didn’t want to become involved with politics, but because I saw all my villagers are victims and have filed complaints before and nobody in the commune has taken action for them, I decided to join my party,” she said.
Nim joined the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, driven to fight the nepotism she believed had privileged the senator with a 9,000-hectare concession on her and her neighbours’ land.
This week the 28-year-old is due to be sworn in as commune chief, having mustered the vote of so many families that have turned to the SRP in Omlaing, fed up with inaction and court harrassment.
Sitting under her wooden house in Takaong village, Nim said she joined the SRP with no leadership expectations because she was born to a poor, uneducated family.
Nim is one of just 22 SRP commune chiefs in Cambodia’s 1,633 communes and joins many of her fellow opposition leaders in facing the challenge of governing a commune locked in a long-standing and seemingly unsolvable land dispute.
“It seems like a dream for me recently, but I have prepared already for working as a commune chief to help villagers in my commune,” she said, adding she planned to tackle other contentious issues in the commune such as domestic violence, gambling, human trafficking and truancy.
“I am happy Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered officials to work for villagers who have land disputes with companies that have received economic land concessions, so I can work for my villagers in this commune.”
While highly motivated, Nim is also trying to be realistic about what she will be able to accomplish during her five-year term as commune chief.
“During my job, I am to resolve the problems for my villagers that have had their land just taken over by [Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar company], but where the land has already been cleared, I cannot help them to get it back,” she said.
Three hectares of her family’s land was taken by the CPP senator’s sugar company, and Nim said that she has resigned herself to the fact that she is never going to get it back, as the farmland has already been destroyed and turned into sugar plantation.
However, Nim does not plan to make surrender her hallmark.
“I will try to stop the culture of corruption,” she said, repeating the SRP election mantra. “I know I will face a lot of problems when I take the law to work.”
Former commune officers will cause problems for her in this respect, she expects, because she is young and inexperienced.
Hem Reng, deputy commune chief in Omlaing, who has worked with the commune council for more than 20 years said she was not in a position to comment on the election because her party, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, had lost the seat.
“Maybe our activity was not good, so that villagers did not vote for us, but I am not a leader, I have no right to say,” Reng said, adding she believed Nim had the ability to bring about real results for villagers.
Before the June 3 elections, all seven commune council seats belonged to CPP members. Now, three seats, including the commune chief post have been allotted to SRP candidates and two to fellow opposition Human Rights Party candidates with the CPP retaining just two councillors.
Despite her concerns about appeasing the older generation, Nim already has the unwavering support of one of the commune’s elders – her 61-year-old mother, Yoeun Ry, who beamed with pride talking about her daughter’s success.
“I have never dreamed that my daughter could become a commune chief because we are so poor,” Ry said.
According to the rights group Adhoc, 29 villagers from Omlaing have been charged under the criminal code since the dispute erupted when Ly Yong Phat was awarded the land in February 2010.
They have held 96 protests and on four occasions all 2,000 families have joined together to block the nearby National Road 52, Adhoc says.
Phal Vannak, a villager representative in the Omlaing land dispute, said he had been hoping for a new commune chief and believed she would help villagers more than the former commune chief because she was once a victim too.
“Even though she is young and has no experience, I have hope that she can do [better], because she is willing to work with villagers,” Vannak said.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]