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Little Change in Tonle Sap Fishing Villages

A foul odor rises from the water of the Tonle Sap lake, where sunlight reflects off the surface and the heat of noon pervades three floating villages. The floating houses here are small, some without walls, others pierced with holes. Wind shakes the homes, as do the wakes of boats that pass by from time to time.

In these floating villages—Chnok Trou, Kampong Preah and Sess Slap—30 kilometers north of Kampong Chhnang town, some women prepare dry fish or prepare them to make paste; others care for pigs.

Little has changed here since the national elections in July 2008, when campaigning officials promised to improve villagers’ lives, to combat illegal fishing and corruption and to improve agriculture.

"They promised to help the poor, to let people become rich before the state,” said Khieu Sokha, a 37-year-old villager, as he sat on a small boat filled with wood. “But finally villagers are still poor.”

Sitting in a wooden chair in his floating home, his back curved under 71 years of living, Chhoun Sam Ban, who was born here, said the political parties have not built a close relationship with villagers.

“They respected some [promises], and haven’t others,” he said with a dry face. “We are the poor, and we are not taken care of.”

Not all share his point of view. Thay Kim San, a leading businessman in Chnok Trou commune, said officials repsected promises, “especially in infrastructure.”

Here there are 195 families: about 9,000 villagers, and 1,500 voters, a mix of mostly ethnic Khmers, Vietnamese and Cham, who all sell their fish to Phnom Penh, Vietnam or Poipet, on the Thai border.

Villagers here say their fish yields have been declining in recent years.

“First of all, because of the destruction of flooded forests, and second because 90 percent of villagers depend on fishing,” said Phat Phalla, an environmental activist in the commune.

Oeur Rattanak, an activist for the Human Rights Party in the commune, shared the same view.

“Not many villagers have seen an improvement in their living conditions,” he said, adding there had been some political discrimination in the community.

Five parties competed here in 2008, where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party gained the most votes, followed by the Sam Rainsy, Norodom Ranariddh and Human Rights parties, successively.

The commune council is led by the CPP, which has four seats, versus three seats for the Sam Rainsy Party.

Cheang Kong, an SRP council member, said people’s lives were “improving,” even if there were some negative points.

“We’ve achieved our committment in developing the commune, in assuring security,” said Samreth Heng, CPP head of the commune council. “But we still have been incapable of having the means of securing villagers when they are in an emergency.”

In 2008 and 2009, the government released 64 million riel, about $15,400, to develop the commune, but the adminstration has not yet used it, “because it is a small amount,” Samreth Heng said. Local officials were waiting for the 2010 budget, around 60 million riel, about $14,400, he said.

Meanwhile, the rest of the community depends on the support of non-governmental agencies and the Asian Development Bank, which is focusing on women capacity development, small infrastructure, fisheries and pork.