Sin Rozeth’s attempts to show the benefits of grassroots democracy to some of the poorest people in the Cambodian city of Battambang are in peril.
The 30-year-old daughter of a vegetable seller became the head of Ochar commune, the equivalent of local council leader, in elections in June. Her victory was part of an “all politics is local” strategy that helped the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) win 40 per cent of the 1,646 local seats at stake. Previously it had just 2 per cent.
But the authoritarian government of former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen is cracking down at every level on a party that had shown it might beat him at elections due next July. He accuses the CNRP of doing the bidding of the United States.
Hun Sen’s government has arrested CNRP leader Kem Sokha on treason charges and taken steps to have the party dissolved altogether.
For Sin Rozeth, it has meant warning letters from city and provincial authorities threatening to remove her.
Now voters are showing signs of discouragement in Ochar, a community of 18,000 where Battambang spills into rice fields and dwellings patched from metal sheet and wood sit alongside low-rise cinderblock homes.
Few new voters in the commune have registered ahead of next year’s national elections, she said.
It is the same picture across Cambodia. The electoral commission estimated 1.6 million people needed to register — either because they had come of age or had been missed before — and barely a quarter have done so ahead of a November 9 deadline.
At stake is the shaky democracy that Western donors spent billions of dollars trying to build after the genocide of the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979.
Hun Sen’s dominance dates from 1985, when he became prime minister under the patronage of occupying Vietnamese forces he had helped to drive out his former Khmer Rouge comrades. A 1991 peace deal ended civil war and UN-supervised elections were held in 1993. Hun Sen lost, but manoeuvred to keep power and has used force and courts to undermine opponents ever since.
Sin Rozeth, who took up politics after dropping out of university for lack of money, said she made some money by helping others with real estate deals in Battambang province to support herself and her single mother, who raised her.
Her commune’s official budget had been frozen and she had to pay the office’s electricity bill from her own pocket, she said. Donors in Cambodia and abroad also helped. They bought a computer and plastic chairs for the office.
“It is very hard to work,” Sin Rozeth said.
City and provincial authorities have sent three warning letters. Among the accusations: offering services free of charge, discriminating against ruling party officials, usurping the role of the commune clerk and holding meetings on Saturdays.
The CNRP’s commune chiefs elsewhere complain, too.
Va Sam, of Kok Khleang commune in Phnom Penh, said the interior ministry had taken over issuing documents such as land titles and birth certificates, previously a big source of funds for the commune.
Discrimination against CNRP commune chiefs was widespread, said Mu Sochua, a deputy of Kem Sokha who fled into exile fearing arrest.
“Other communes face the same targeting if we shine and show too much competence,” she said.
If the CNRP is banned, with a court decision due on November 16, the ruling party would take control of all the communes the CNRP currently leads.
The government dismisses criticism that the crackdown ahead of next July’s election is turning Cambodia into a one-party state. It says it is only acting against those who have broken Cambodia’s laws. — Reuters