Things fall apart

With com­mune elec­tions loom­ing, Cam­bo­dia's rul­ing party may strug­gle to keep the sup­port of its long-held power­base in the na­tion's coun­try­side

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - By Colin Meyn

Sin San had re­tired from teach­ing and taken up a life of re­li­gion, spend­ing days at a lo­cal pagoda and nights at home with his fam­ily, when his old bosses came call­ing. The rul­ing Cam­bo­dian Peo­ple’s Party (CPP) wanted him to be­come a vil­lage chief, if only un­til the next lo­cal elec­tions. His daughters talked him into tak­ing the job.

“I saw the way the old vil­lage chief worked was not help­ful to the peo­ple,” he said at his two-storey house on a main street in Donkeo City, the cap­i­tal of Takeo prov­ince. His pre­de­ces­sor, in the role since 1979, was ill, he said, with his or­gans and eye­sight fail­ing. But the lo­cals were also sick of him.

San said peo­ple lost land and busi­nesses dur­ing his pre­de­ces­sor’s decades as vil­lage chief – the low­est rung of pub­lic of­fice, which falls un­der elected com­mune chiefs and po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed district chiefs and provin­cial gover­nors. Res­i­dents also had to pay for doc­u­ments – death cer­tifi­cates, for ex­am­ple – that were sup­posed to be free, and those who didn’t sup­port the CPP strug­gled to get his sig­na­ture at all. “The way he treated the peo­ple was painful,” San said.

Wear­ing an al­most-match­ing grey out­fit and oc­ca­sion­ally ri­fling through a stack of ad­min­is­tra­tive pa­pers, San looked the part of a vil­lage chief, but the 68-year-old was not mak­ing much of an ef­fort to help cam­paign for the coun­try’s lo­cal elec­tions, which are set for 4 June. “Right now the CPP is very busy ask­ing mem­bers to hold

more meet­ings to get peo­ple to vote,” San said. “I tell them I have to go to Poipet or the prov­inces to take care of some busi­ness.”

San, like many in this ru­ral prov­ince now dot­ted with gar­ment fac­to­ries, blamed a cul­ture of greed in provin­cial pol­i­tics largely on Sok An, Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen’s top deputy and head of the rul­ing party in Takeo, who amassed an un­par­al­leled port­fo­lio of gov­ern­ment po­si­tions and a vast per­sonal for­tune be­fore pass­ing away in March.

“I don’t want to talk too much about pol­i­tics or I will get my­self killed,” San said.

Death has been a pre­vail­ing force in the prov­ince over the past year. Three of Takeo’s most fa­mous sons – Kem Ley, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and sub­ver­sive racon­teur; Pen So­vann, the coun­try’s first prime min­is­ter af­ter the Kh­mer Rouge; and Sok An, who per­son­i­fied the cen­tral­i­sa­tion of power un­der the CPP – have passed on. Pen So­vann and Sok An by way of age and ill­ness; Kem Ley in a brazen day­light as­sas­si­na­tion.

With Hun Sen and his long-rul­ing party fac­ing one of their tough­est po­lit­i­cal tests ever in the na­tional elec­tion set for 2018, the ques­tion is whether it’s all a bad omen; whether the CPP’s time has also passed.

An im­pos­si­bly long wall lines the road on the way to Sok An’s farm in Takeo. This is not just a city slicker’s hobby gar­den. It’s an in­dus­trial out­fit run by his son, where cows graze next to sprawl­ing or­chards of or­ganic co­conuts and man­goes that are sold un­der the Soma brand in Ph­nom Penh, less than two hours away. Sok An de­lighted in es­cap­ing to his ru­ral es­tate and tend­ing to his or­chids, an aviary hous­ing his col­lec­tion of rare birds and, most fa­mously, his prized fight­ing cocks.

His life’s work, how­ever, was as a chief strate­gist and a top ad­min­is­tra­tor of an em­pire headed by Hun Sen. With each pass­ing decade in Cam­bo­dian pol­i­tics, the net­work has ex­panded, adding new pa­trons and clients from the Kh­mer Rouge when it dis­armed, from the roy­al­ist Func­in­pec party as it crum­bled, and any­one else use­ful in a sys­tem that crit­ics say op­er­ates above the law and in the ser­vice of a pow­er­ful few. Sok An’s three sons ei­ther de­clined to be in­ter­viewed or could not be reached.

Cheang Nget lives on a road named af­ter Sok An; no one in her com­mu­nity had a say in the mat­ter. The 47-year-old’s son worked for a year on his farm mak­ing $80 a month, about half the salary of a gar­ment fac­tory worker. Nget won­ders why a man with so much money didn’t try harder to help or­di­nary peo­ple like her.

“What has Sok An done for us?” she asked, sit­ting un­der her wooden house along­side Khaou Phat, a neigh­bour who is two years younger and shares the trou­bles of be­ing an un­e­d­u­cated woman rais­ing chil­dren in ru­ral Cam­bo­dia.

“They have built roads and hos­pi­tals,” Phat said of the CPP lead­ers. “But when it comes to try­ing to sur­vive, they have no idea.”

What has Sok An done for us? The rul­ing party have built roads and hos­pi­tals. But when it comes to try­ing to sur­vive, they have no idea”

Nget and Phat were wary of talk­ing openly or hon­estly about pol­i­tics, but didn’t hide their in­cli­na­tions. “I just don’t want to give my vote to this party any more,” Nget said.

De­spite the CPP’s dom­i­na­tion of lo­cal elec­tions in 2012, when it won the vote in more than 97% of 1,633 com­munes, signs are point­ing to sig­nif­i­cant losses this year, or even an all-out de­feat, an­a­lysts say.

They see an elec­torate that is only get­ting younger and more re­moved from a po­lit­i­cal brand bur­nished decades ago, as well as an ever-in­creas­ing num­ber of Kh­mer-lan­guage web­sites that now in­form vot­ers through cheap smart­phones with cheap in­ter­net con­nec­tions. The dis­con­tent ex­pressed by vot­ers four years ago, when the CPP nar­rowly won a dis­puted na­tional bal­lot, has shown no sign of abat­ing, and peo­ple are plac­ing blame for so­cial ills squarely on Hun Sen and his age­ing com­rades atop the rul­ing party, said Lao Mong Hay, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Ph­nom Penh and for­mer le­gal ad­vi­sor to op­po­si­tion leader Kem Sokha.

“The sys­tem is so cen­tralised in terms of al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources,” he said. The most pow­er­ful CPP of­fi­cials head com­mit­tees that su­per­sede the gov­ern­ment all the way down to the vil­lage level. “But they are not de­liv­er­ing ser­vices to the peo­ple,” he added. “They are dig­ging canals and then not mak­ing any sys­tem to man­age them.”

Just as wor­ry­ing for the CPP are those

in­side the party who are also feel­ing ne­glected, stuck in place, or ready for a new boss, said Mong Hay: “With nepo­tism, cor­rup­tion, the pro­mo­tion of the son of this or that min­is­ter, it cre­ates frus­tra­tion, re­sent­ment.” Sim­i­larly, the sys­tem of favours that has brought peo­ple of var­ied po­lit­i­cal lean­ings un­der Hun Sen’s tent has, over time, left many well off and un­bound from their pa­trons in the party. “They are less and less de­pen­dent on the whims and wishes of their bosses,” he said.

Since their eyes were sup­pos­edly opened by the last elec­tion re­sult, CPP lead­ers have de­voted most of their en­ergy to de­stroy­ing the op­po­si­tion and si­lenc­ing crit­ics, rather than im­prov­ing pub­lic ser­vices and tend­ing to the peo­ple’s de­mands, said Cham Bun­thet, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and univer­sity lec­turer in Ph­nom Penh.

Hun Sen is not only rul­ing the coun­try through fear – jail­ing dis­si­dents and warn­ing of civil war if his party loses – he is also deeply fear­ful, Bun­thet said. The premier knows that cor­rupt and self-in­ter­ested pub­lic of­fi­cials are eat­ing away at his party’s pop­u­lar­ity but is too scared to stop them, he added.

“The prob­lem is he has no one us­ing their au­thor­ity and power to get things done. He just says things but won’t act be­cause he’s afraid those peo­ple will run away from him and join the op­po­si­tion,” Bun­thet said. “You can’t change in the face of fear.”

It’s been two decades since Hun Sen faced

With nepo­tism, cor­rup­tion, the pro­mo­tion of the son of this or that min­is­ter, it cre­ates

frus­tra­tion, re­sent­ment”

such an un­cer­tain po­lit­i­cal fu­ture – when he crushed his roy­al­ist ri­vals in fac­tional fight­ing on the streets of Ph­nom Penh in July 1997. It was in the days af­ter that bat­tle that Hav Pheak said he met Pen So­vann, Cam­bo­dia’s first post-Kh­mer Rouge prime min­is­ter. Pheak would be­come So­vann’s per­sonal body­guard and marry his adopted daugh­ter.

Af­ter So­vann’s death in Oc­to­ber, which brought thou­sands to the streets in mourn­ing of the op­po­si­tion law­maker, Pheak has been look­ing af­ter his house in Takeo, which sits across from the King Club, among the flashiest of a num­ber of karaoke bars that line a main drag head­ing out of Donkeo City.

The rul­ing party is now in over­drive ahead of the elec­tion, trav­el­ling to all cor­ners of the prov­ince, hold­ing meet­ings and hand­ing out gifts in ex­change for vot­ers’ sup­port, or at the very least some of their time and out­ward ap­pre­ci­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Pheak. “For the CNRP, the peo­ple pay their own money to come and lis­ten,” he said of the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion.

Though the CPP knows about the prob­lems peo­ple face, and its slip­ping pop­u­lar­ity for fail­ing to ad­dress them, the party is in­ca­pable of chang­ing its ways, Pheak said. If low­er­level of­fi­cials fol­lowed in­struc­tions from Hun Sen to change their cor­rupt prac­tices and serve the peo­ple, they would be crip­pled in the very sys­tem that has made those in its up­per ech­e­lon filthy rich, he added.

“Peo­ple don’t fol­low what he says

be­cause they have to make money. And that money sup­ports the party,” Pheak said. Some of that money is then used to fund cam­paigns heavy on hand­outs, he added, but that wasn’t win­ning votes any more. “They don’t give them what they want. They give them things they don’t want.”

A few min­utes away, CPP of­fi­cials were spend­ing the morn­ing in a meet­ing at the party’s provin­cial head­quar­ters, set­ting out their elec­tion plans. Kin Net, whose busi­ness card reads “Chair­man of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee of the Per­ma­nent Com­mit­tee of the CPP Takeo Provin­cial Com­mit­tee”, in­vited South­east Asia Globe into his spa­cious of­fice af­ter fin­ish­ing lunch.

“I think we are go­ing to win, and win by a lot,” he said, punc­tu­at­ing his re­marks by rap­ping his hands on a hard­wood con­fer­ence table. Net said the no­tion that the CPP had failed the prov­ince over the past few decades was shared by an un­grate­ful few. He also re­buffed the most com­mon com­plaints among lo­cals: land in­se­cu­rity, job scarcity, in­debt­ed­ness and a bro­ken jus­tice sys­tem.

“Ev­ery­thing our group does is al­ways what the peo­ple want. That is my opin­ion and the real sit­u­a­tion as well,” he said. “Peo­ple who say this and that – there are no jobs or that busi­ness is bad – it’s be­cause they don’t work to move up.”

If dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion is the only way up in Takeo, Kem Ley of­fered an in­spir­ing ex­am­ple. He got top marks in high school, went to univer­sity in Ph­nom Penh, re­turned to Takeo as a med­i­cal doc­tor and even­tu­ally got a po­si­tion at the Min­istry of Health. But he was not con­tent.

Kem Ley left the gov­ern­ment to do so­cial re­search, mostly for NGOs. He rose to na­tional prominence af­ter the dis­puted 2013 elec­tion as a steady voice of rea­son dur­ing volatile times. He ap­peared of­ten on the ra­dio to dis­cuss pol­i­tics and cur­rent events, posted en­light­en­ing sto­ries and scathing satire on Face­book and started the Kh­mer for Kh­mer ad­vo­cacy group, which launched the Grass­roots Democ­racy Party.

His as­sas­si­na­tion in July at a gas sta­tion con­ve­nience store in Ph­nom Penh, car­ried out by a for­mer sol­dier be­lieved to be a hired gun, is widely as­sumed to have been or­ches­trated by the CPP, and to many epit­o­mised the dan­ger of speak­ing truth to power in Cam­bo­dia.

Kem Ley’s child­hood home in Donkeo City has been turned into some­thing of a pil­grim­age site since his body was laid to rest there. A mas­sive sign bear­ing his smil­ing face is planted along the road. His mother, Phok Se, spends her days next to her son’s grave, meet­ing with those who come to pay their re­spects.

She doesn’t look at the photographs lined up above her, show­ing eight dif­fer­ent an­gles

of the same scene: her son’s life­less body ly­ing in a pool of blood. “Some peo­ple around here said peo­ple should see his body to be re­minded there is no jus­tice,” she said.

Phok Sambo, a cousin who lives next door, said he didn’t re­alise Kem Ley was fa­mous un­til he was shot dead. As the CPP vil­lage chief since 1993, he has found the sit­u­a­tion par­tic­u­larly vex­ing.

“It’s hard for me to say what I feel and think,” Sambo said of work­ing for a party widely blamed for mur­der­ing his own cousin. His wife and daugh­ter sell cof­fee and sim­ple lunches from their busy lit­tle road­side restau­rant in front of their house, and his son-in-law makes de­cent money mov­ing dirt in his dump truck. Sambo wasn’t in­clined to thank his bosses.

“Sok An has done noth­ing with this prov­ince; he just built schools with his name on them,” he said. Asked who he planned to vote for this year, he laughed, not­ing that he used to go around the vil­lage ask­ing peo­ple the same ques­tion ahead of elec­tions. “Oth­ers in the party are say­ing: ‘I guess you’re go­ing to vote for the CNRP be­cause you are Kem Ley’s cousin.’ I say: ‘Guess what­ever you want if you want to start a fight.’”

“There will be change,” he added. “But what kind of change? It’s hard to say whether it’s go­ing to be peace­ful.”

Clock­wise from top left: Sok An, the late deputy prime min­is­ter in charge of the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters (left), speaks to Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen; Sin San speaks out­side his home in Takeo prov­ince’s cap­i­tal city; CPP law­mak­ers gather af­ter con­ven­ing the first ses­sion of a new Na­tional Assem­bly in 2013 de­spite an op­po­si­tion boy­cott; a con­crete sign marks Sok An Road off Na­tional Road 2 in Takeo prov­ince

Op­po­site page: Cheang Nget and Khaou Phat talk pol­i­tics un­der Phat’s house in Takeo prov­ince (top); an in­dus­trial cat­tle shed on Sok An’s Soma farm in Takeo. Above: the gate

in the front of the CPP’s provin­cial head­quar­ters in Takeo

Clock­wise from top left: Kem Ley’s grave at his child­hood home in Donkeo City; Kem Ley’s mother, Phok Se, wipes away tears while talk­ing about her son; Hav Pheak talks in a room that has been con­verted into a shrine to his fa­ther-in-law Pen So­vann; Phok Sambo out­side his house in the provin­cial cap­i­tal

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