On Sunday, opposition commune chief candidate Tuon Aun won the rural Siem Reap commune of Kok Doung, a former bastion of support for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, by more than 1,000 votes.
Then the next day, his son, along with other villagers from this cassava farming region in Angkor Chum district, left for Thailand to earn money for their heavily indebted families.
“I told him not to harvest the cassava because the price was so cheap, and to go to Thailand to work and make some money instead,” Aun, 70, said in an interview at his home on Monday. “If you grow cassava, you have to be in debt.”
Kok Doung commune, like many rural areas, was once firmly in the grip of the ruling party, which took 3,057 votes to the opposition’s 823 at the 2012 commune elections.
But as villagers watched the value of their crops drop, their debts with microfinance institutions rise and their relatives leave to find work in Thailand, their tolerance for the status quo ran out.
“We want a change so we can have development in the future,” said Puch Torch, 25, who supported the CNRP candidate on Sunday. “I want this village to be improved.”
It’s a trend that appears to have surfaced elsewhere. Though the final results from Sunday’s commune election are yet to be released, the National Election Committee’s preliminary figures show the CNRP has made inroads into rural areas once considered the CPP’s heartland.
Several rural areas previously controlled by the ruling party, like in Preah Vihear’s Chey Sen district and communes near the eastern boundary of Battambang, appear to have changed hands in this year’s election, as the CNRP massively increased its share of the country’s commune chief positions to almost 500.
The CPP, many of whose members have deep rural roots, has long boasted of its self-proclaimed track record of stability, growth and development.
But as ruling party elites have grown increasingly wealthy, many rural communities feel left behind. Figures from 2013, the most recent available, show average income for people in rural areas were less than half their urban counterparts, not including Phnom Penh, where incomes were almost three times higher.
Perhaps nowhere outside the capital is the divide more apparent than Siem Reap, where millions of tourist dollars spent towards the area’s temples have failed to lift many out of poverty. Instead, in places like Kok Doung many residents they face a mountain of debt they fear they will never pay off.
Like other villagers, Torch, the CNRP supporter and a farmer of cassava, is paying to rent farmland from an absentee landlord, whose identity she doesn’t know. Equally as enigmatic, she said, was the role of the commune authorities in her life.
“They live their life and I live my life; we have nothing to do with each other.”
Many villagers in Kok Doung said they began planting cassava about five years ago when they say the price was about 800 riel per kilo. A sharp drop in international demand in recent years, however, has seen the price plummet. Villagers now say they sell the starchy root for 100 riel per kilo.
Torch’s neighbour, 33-year-old Phal Pheap, said the economics of cassava farming were ruinous. “Once I sell my harvest and pay to rent the land, then I have nothing left,” said Pheap, whose husband was among villagers who left for Thailand on Monday. “If I grow cassava, I go bankrupt. If I don’t grow it, I go bankrupt.”
Aun, the apparent commune chief-elect, isn’t inexperienced at local administration. Born and raised in the commune, he served as its chief for the CPP and its forerunner, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, from 1979 until 2002. He says he was kicked out for “not doing enough to improve the party”.
When asked what his first plans were as commune chief, he consulted a prewritten CNRP statement which spoke of “enhancing people’s rights” to participate in decision-making and allowing people to “express their opinion”.
Pushed on specifics, Aun said he would ask “top officials” to help raise cassava’s price and call a community meeting to hear suggestions on the issue. But beyond this, he conceded, he was at a loss as to how to lessen the burden on his constituents.
“I don’t know what to do now, unless people at the top give us more money,” he said.
Sitting under his wooden stilted house with his wife and 19-year-old daughter, 43-year-old Chok Chuch said he had little hope of change, even though the commune had voted in a different chief.
“It is still under the same government and the government does not really think about the poor,” he said. “I want my children to be well educated and have good jobs like other people. If you stay here, you can’t do anything.”