Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CNRP runs newcomer, testing a community’s desire for change




CNRP runs newcomer, testing a community’s desire for change

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
CNRP candidate Chen Sokngeng (left), 26, is mounting a challenge against three-time sitting CPP Commune Chief Sam Lan (right) in Siem Reap province’s Sala Kamroeuk commune. Ananth Baliga

CNRP runs newcomer, testing a community’s desire for change

Like many parts of the Kingdom, Sala Kamroeuk commune, just outside of Siem Reap city, has been governed with consistency by one commune chief from the ruling party for the past 15 years.

When that commune chief – three-time incumbent Sam Lan, now 60 – took office, Chen Sokngeng was just 11 years old, the son of a humble farming family.

Now running to capture Lan’s seat at the age of 26, Sokngeng is officially the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s youngest candidate for office in the upcoming June 4 commune elections, and is banking on an infusion of youth turning the tide in a race that has all the makings of a David-versus-Goliath contest.

Sokngeng joined the CNRP at the age of 21, setting aside a career as a nurse, and went on to work for the party’s national election campaign in 2013 before deciding to entire the political arena himself.

He is now up against the perception that he is inexperienced and underqualified for the job he is looking to take away from the ruling CPP.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Chen Sokngeng drives a car through the streets of Sala Kamroeuk commune, with a supporter pushing residents to vote for the CNRP. Ananth Baliga

But instead of shying away from discussing his age, Sokngeng is confident he can use it as an advantage rather than a stumbling block – as a tool to appeal to the commune’s younger voters.

“The youth are wishing for change. The public services for citizens are not transparent. So, the youth don’t want to see this. And the youth want me to bring new ideas, new development,” he said.

There may be something to Sokngeng’s optimism. With more than 60 percent of the country’s population aged between 18 and 30, younger candidates like Sokngeng have the potential to resonate more than either party’s old guard.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
CNRP candidate Chen Sokngeng, 26, is mounting a challenge against a three-time sitting commune chief in Siem Reap province’s Sala Kamroeuk commune. Ananth Baliga

Indeed, one of the factors contributing to the opposition’s surprise gains in the 2013 national elections, in which they won 55 of 123 parliamentary seats, was its use of social media to engage and mobilise support among young people. Social media darlings like Thy Sovantha – who has since split with the party – used their Facebook pages as political forums to push the opposition, which in turn benefited from the reflected youthful glow.

Cham Bunthet, a political commentator, said the CNRP had the upper hand in mobilising the youth vote in 2013, and predicted this momentum to continue into the elections on June 4.

However, he said the CPP had seemed to learn from the CNRP’s strategy – it has aggressively bolstered its own social media presence since 2013 – and is making its own efforts to attract young voters. “Yes, the CNRP may have it now, but there are no guarantees in 2018 or even in 2022,” he said.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
CNRP supporters conduct a rally in Siem Reap town canvassing for newcomer commune chief candidate Chen Sokngeng. Ananth Baliga

In the scorching heat, Sokngeng sat behind the wheel of a black SUV yesterday, with a party colleague shouting party slogans and policies from the sunroof.

Sokngeng tells the commune residents not to dismiss him because of his age and inexperience, but to focus instead on his platform to provide transparent public services free from graft.

“People in this commune said they want youth to lead the commune. They said the age is not the problem, what’s important is political will,” he said.

Sitting near a bridge watching the rally pass by, Uy Sopha, a motodop, said he was unaware of the new candidate’s credentials but knows that the commune was looking to move away from the CPP. “You cannot eat sour soup all the time. You will want to change,” he said.

As the CNRP rally meandered through the town’s streets, Sam Lan sat behind his desk at the commune office shuffling through documents requiring his signature. The office sits in the same compound as the Cambodian People Party’s local headquarters, a reminder of how little separation there is between the local government and the party.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
CNRP supporters conduct a rally in Siem Reap town canvassing for newcomer commune chief candidate Chen Sokngeng. Ananth Baliga

With the demeanour of a battle-tested statesman, the 60-year-old commune chief is unfazed by the CNRP’s young pick. The CPP has won at least seven commune council seats out of 11 in each of the last three local elections, and Lan seemed assured of a repeat performance.

He has proactively made his young opponent’s age a campaign issue, telling voters he won’t be able to handle the rigours of local administration.

“At 26 he is younger than my son. A person of 26 cannot even manage a family, so how can he lead a whole community?” he asked.

While harping on Sokngeng’s age is an easy hit for the stalwart, he said the commune’s residents were looking for experience, pointing to his track record of supporting the commune’s hospitality industry.

“We have provided a safe commune for them,” he said.

Sokngeng brushed aside Lan’s comments about his age and pointed to recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron, who at 39 is the country’s youngest president. If a European country could elect a young leader, he asked, why can’t Sal Kamroeuk put him in the commune hall?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Three-time CPP commune chief Sam Lan says his work over the last 15 years and his opponent's inexperience will ensure another term for him come June 4. Ananth Baliga

Back at the CNRP rally, local resident Bopha was buying vegetables from a vendor as the cavalcade of motos and SUVs with blaring loudspeakers passed by.

“We cannot look at young or old now because the youth has a lot of knowledge. We may want to have a new commune chief but if he is not good we will change again,” she said.

Despite the symbolism of a young candidate calling for change against an establishment incumbent, Sokngeng only wanted to focus on the needs of the commune – an issue he says the CPP has long ignored.

“We do not want to hear ‘you have all this – what more do you want?’” he said, referring to an oft-used CPP comeback to citizen requests. “We want development for all people, equally.”

MOST VIEWED

  • School reopening to be postponed until November

    Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron on Tuesday wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen requesting a delay of school reopening across the Kingdom until November, when the new academic year begins. In his letter, Chuon Naron said the postponement is warranted to avoid the new

  • Foreigners in Kingdom must now register in FPCS system

    The Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Immigration (GDI) announced that it would not grant visa extensions to foreigners staying in Cambodia if their names are not listed on the Foreigners Present in Cambodia System (FPCS) by July 1. Foreign nationals can register in the

  • Covid-19 at ‘alarming rate’, health ministry says

    The Covid-19 risk level for individual transmission is at an “alarming rate” in the Kingdom and its probability is “not low”, warned Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine. “Cambodia’s coronavirus scenario is classified as being at an early stage of the pandemic because of ongoing

  • Mandatory quarantine for 30,000 workers begins

    Some of the roughly 30,000 workers from factories and enterprises across the Kingdom who went on leave during Khmer New Year began their government-imposed 14-day quarantine on Monday. Speaking at a press conference while visiting workers at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on Monday, Ministry

  • Unemployed to get $40 per month

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has instructed enterprises, business owners and travel agencies in five provinces to prepare the proper forms for the suspension of employment contracts. This, it said, will make it easier for the ministry to transfer $40 a month to workers

  • Gov’t travel ban flouted

    While the majority of Cambodians have paid heed to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order to stay put and not travel during the Khmer New Year – the holidays of which were also postponed – several hundred have left Phnom Penh nonetheless. They have allegedly breached provincial

  • G20 energy ministers struggle to finalise oil output cuts

    Top oil producers struggled to finalise production cuts during a virtual summit held by Group of 20 (G20) energy ministers on Friday, despite US President Donald Trump’s mediation efforts to end a standoff with Mexico. The final G20 communique appeared to gloss over simmering divisions

  • Kingdom revises travel restriction order

    The government on Friday eased the district and provincial border restrictions issued on Thursday. People are now allowed to cross districts within their provinces. Phnom Penh and Kandal province are to be treated as a single region where people are allowed to travel freely. In

  • Private schools struggling

    The Cambodian Higher Education Association has claimed that 113 private educational establishments are facing bankruptcy because of their inability to pay rent and staff salaries in light of nationwide school closures caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. It said the financial trouble started when the Ministry of

  • Khmer New Year holidays postponed

    In an effort to halt Covid-19 infections in the Kingdom, Prime Minister Hun Sen has postponed the Khmer New Year holidays scheduled from April 13 to 16. While the people will not have their usual break, nor will there be any public celebrations or gatherings at pagodas,