Residents of Takeo province’s Trapeang Thom Khang Cheung commune turned out to their local pagoda yesterday to experience something common during elections the world over but rarer in Cambodia: a public debate between the people seeking to govern them.
Organised by the US-funded National Democratic Institute, the more than two-hour-long debate at the Mongkul Mean Leakh pagoda pitted four locals against each other who hope to win office on June 4 as commune chief, and one aiming to be deputy chief.
The residents drove the agenda for the debate, with the questions raised through the morning ranging from the exodus of Cambodians migrating abroad in search of work, to local infrastructure and the impacts of growing drug-use and gambling in the community.
Chea Touch, the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s candidate for commune chief, told the crowd of a few hundred that his party’s plan to give each commune $500,000 a year for its development could help reduce the economic emigration that has split many families.
“We would use that $500,000,” he said. “Seventy percent would be used to develop our area, 20 percent for technical teachers to teach children in the communes in order to reduce migrants going overseas, and 10 percent would be for public services.”
A more novel solution was provided by Nub Seng, of radio personality Mam Sonando’s Beehive Social Democratic Party. Seng, who was by far the most animated of the debaters, flailed his arms as he proposed a complete makeover for Trapeang Thom Khang Cheung.
“We will prepare and build infrastructure like sewage systems, roads, bridges, dams, canals, lakes, and we will create a sports team and some tourist sites in order to reduce migrants going overseas,” said Seng, who also pledged to crack down on gambling with an iron fist.
“If brothers or sisters gamble . . . the armed forces or police will arrest you. And if the police release you, we will arrest the police,” he said. “This will get rid of gambling.”
The Cambodian People’s Party candidate for deputy commune chief, Ouk Marin, said he could not make populist promises of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or a new sports team, but said that the CPP had done a good job running the commune.
“It’s only the CPP that has liberated the country and brought peace, freedom, democracy and development to the country. This peace and democracy is why we can hold this forum,” Marin said, adding that the CPP had sustainable funding promises.
“When you vote for the CPP, the communes receive at least 2.8 percent of [government] revenue each year, and this rate will increase in order to promote the development of the commune,” he said.
However, Sem Sarirath, the candidate for the League for Democracy Party, went one further.
Her party has said in the past that it campaigns not necessarily to win votes, but rather to spread its message of clean government until people are one day ready for its rule, and Sarirath said she would accordingly not make any fanciful promises like the others.
“It’s only promises they give you – but after they are elected, they will not do any of that for you,” Sarirath said. “I don’t have any promises for you, brothers and sisters. For social issues, the communes cannot solve the problems. Only the top level can solve the problems.”
Yesterday’s audience appeared highly partisan, enthusiastically cheering their chosen candidates’ responses.
But nonetheless, audience members said after the debate that it had been informative and entertaining, and in particular expressed interest in the CNRP’s policy to give the commune council half a million dollars a year to develop the local area and economy.
“The discussion was fruitful, and I liked the CNRP’s answers because they had a clear policy to protect and help people and have development in the commune. We want to see that $500,000 to develop our commune,” said Pen Sal, a 61-year-old local.
Yet others said the CPP’s history of incremental development was a more persuasive vote-winner than any promise could be.
Chea Ron, 55, said he had yet to see the CNRP build anything in the local area, while the ruling party slowly improved lives.
“The CPP’s answers won over my heart because they have done good development in this commune. They built the roads and schools and the other infrastructure, while the CNRP has not done anything for the commune,” Ron said. “We cannot trust them.”