Villagers in this rural rice-growing area are eager to discuss and debate the meaning of July’s landslide election victory for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which left them living in what is essentially a one-party state.
They are especially anxious about the prospect of losing duty-free trade access to the European Union, a process set in motion after the election due to what the EU said were abuses of political and human rights in Cambodia.
But they are afraid to talk about these issues openly.
Chea Run, 68, was preparing fried fish and bitter-melon soup to sell at a local food stall one recent morning. Her two daughters, who both work at a shoe factory in Kandal province, alternate taking days off to help cook for the family business.
One of them, Meng Pheary, 34, said that although everyone in her village was seriously concerned after the election, they knew better than to discuss politics in public.
“They don’t dare to talk. It has been silent since the CNRP was dissolved,” she said.
The CNRP was the country’s largest and most popular opposition party up until last year, when its leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested and charged with treason, and the party was dissolved by court order in November.
Although the CNRP won Champey commune in local elections last June, its seats were taken away after the party’s dissolution and redistributed to the ruling CPP—which then swept this year’s national elections in the absence of serious competition.
The CPP won around 3,000 of 3,500 valid votes in Champey, according to results from the CPP-dominated National Election Committee. Around 300 voters also spoiled their ballots, part of a national trend in which nearly 10 percent of voters chose to show up at the polls but not make a choice.
Run said she was worried about publicly telling the truth about how she had voted.
Phorn Thlang, the former commune chief for the CNRP, who lost his job when the party was dissolved, said local authorities had pressured and threatened villagers to head to the polls. He also claimed people were paid $5 in exchange for their votes.
One villager, Phorn Un, 72, confirmed she was given $5 ahead by local authorities ahead of the election and was also given a lesson by local officials in how to vote for the ruling CPP.
“We had a meeting ahead of the election and they taught me to tick the ballot for number 20,” she said, referring to the CPP’s place on the ballot.
Un added that she was given a card by local CPP local officials, and thought that meant she had to vote for them. In fact, the cards are issued by the supposedly non-partisan National Election Committee and grant voters entry to the polls.
“They gave me a voting pass. So I needed to vote for them,” she said. “How could the CPP gave us the pass and we vote for the other party?”
Chin Choy, the Champey commune chief, denied that local authorities forced or threatened people to vote. He admitted that the CPP had distributed cash to villagers in the area, but said this was a legitimate way of rewarding registered CPP members and not a bribe.
Pushing for Benefits Without an Opposition
Champey is around 40 kilometers from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and many of its residents are migrant workers in the city for work in garment factories or construction sites. But it still has many problems common to rural areas.
There is no state-run health center, although one is urgently needed. When medical emergencies arise, residents need to travel to another district.
It also suffers from poor roads and a lack of clean water and irrigation.
The previous commune leadership dominated by the CPP was broadly unpopular for its failure to provide these services and was voted out in June 2017.
But the subsequent opposition government barely had a chance to begin work before the party was dissolved. Now there is no opposition at all.
Keo Soeung, a 39-year-old construction worker, said he feared the new CPP commune leadership, backed by a one-party state with no opposition members in parliament, would not be responsive to the concerns of people in Champey.
“I am worried since there are no CNRP officials like before. There are no opposition ideas. How can the country progress?” he asked.
He said he was earning around 25,000 to 35,000 riel per day ($6.25-$8.75). His wife, a garment worker, recently gave birth to a baby, and he had to drive to a distant health center to get her care.
Local CPP authorities promised villagers they would build a commune health center only if the CPP were voted in. The CPP also said it would build a new road if it won a certain percentage of votes.
These are both things Soeung desperately needs. Still, he said the situation seemed wrong to him.
“I don’t want just one party like it is now. It is not right,” he said.
Commune chief Choy is a former CNRP member who defected to the CPP late last year under pressure after the opposition party was dissolved. But he is now a stalwart defender of the ruling party.
He confirmed villagers’ claims that the ruling party offered a road and health center to the commune if the CPP won a certain percentage of votes there—but said this was a good thing.
“The villages where the [CPP] won more than 80 percent, they get a concrete road. And we will also help other villages who also increased votes,” he said.
He promised that his local government would be more responsive than the previous commune leaders. And he explained that living in a one-party state will actually make villagers better off because the ruling party will be more motivated to help people who voted for them.
This also seems to be the perspective of the country’s top leadership. After July’s election, in which the CPP won every single parliamentary seat, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that his new government would serve the people by doing “double work.”
But this is easier said than done.
Neither the health center nor the road has been built yet, despite the pre-election promises.
Sophal Ear, an associate professor of world affairs at Occidental College who studies Cambodia, said that no matter how good the intentions of ruling-party officials were, the lack of pressure at the polls meant there was little motivation for them to get things done.
“The lack of accountability that comes from a one-party state means there is no one to turn to when the party in charge ignores you,” he wrote in an email.
“In Takeo, as in the Soviet Union, the party chief of the commune may not bother, as his or her job is secure regardless of what he or she does. The people who were forced to elect this person, having no choice but to do so, are not actually his or her boss. The boss is someone outside Takeo, where the concerns of the people on the ground are distant and meaningless.”
The Plight of the Poorest and the Fear of Sanctions
Phorn Un, the elderly woman who voted for the CPP because she thought she was required to, certainly does not feel like a boss.
Un says she is in dire need of a local health center, as well as a “poverty card” that would entitle her to free medical treatment, which can only be issued by commune authorities. The road in front of her house is still unpaved, and she spends $1.50 a week to buy pond water for drinking and washing.
She says she does not know who is responsible for the poor state of the village’s infrastructure—or who could improve things for her.
“There is no tap water and clean water here,” she says.
Like an estimated 70 percent of householders in this commune, Un is supported by children working in garment factories.
She sold her tiny rice field years ago to afford medical care for her sick husband, who died anyway. Now she cares for her 13-year-old granddaughter while her daughters live closer to the factories and send home money when they can. But she is afraid that she will not be able to afford the child’s books and expenses if she wants to continue on to high school.
“Sometimes I can’t even buy food to eat,” the grandmother said.
Both Un and her neighbor, Run, the food vendor, said they were terrified at the prospect of their children losing their factory jobs due to potential trade sanctions.
But they seemed unsure who was to blame for the situation, or how to get more information about the threat.
In fact, the EU has now initiated a formal process to eliminate Cambodia’s preferential access to its markets because of what EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said was “the clear deterioration of human rights and labor rights” in recent years, as well as harassment and intimidation surrounding July’s election.
In a statement last month, Malmstrom said that only the Cambodian government could bring itself back from the brink through initiating “clear and evident improvements on the ground.”
“If the factories are closed, [my daughters] won’t know what to do. We now depend on factories,” said Run as she prepared her lunch.
“Having no factory is like having no air to breathe,” said her daughter Pheary.
Choy, the commune chief, said the matter was up to the government in Phnom Penh. He declined to discuss the connection to the political situation on the ground.
“It is the affairs of upper-level officials,” he said.
“There is one party, so there is not any protest”
After losing his position as CNRP Champey commune chief and being forced out of politics last year, Thlang ekes out a small income from farming rice and doing local construction jobs.
He said he was often followed and harassed by agents of the CPP, who are still pressuring him to defect to the ruling party. He has also been summoned several times to meet with higher-level officials over his refusal to join the party.
“People inside the country can’t do anything. Only people outside can do something,” he said.
Choy confirmed the ex-official’s claims but said he was just being “given the opportunity” to change his mind.
In addition to his personal difficulties, Thlang said he was discouraged to see all levels of the Cambodian government controlled by a single party.
“Every bit of work they do, there will be no opposing ideas like before,” he said. “There is one party, so there is not any protest.”
Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the CPP, defended his party, saying it had played by the rules and that 20 parties had been allowed to enter the election.
“You can’t accuse us of having a one-party assembly,” he said, explaining that the election results made it clear that Cambodians wanted the CPP to run the country.
“We have to accept it following voters’ will. There is no forcing people’s will,” he added.
Mao Monyvann, a CNRP lawmaker now living in exile after the dissolution of his party, said the situation in Cambodia was so dire that the country deserved to lose its EU trade status.
“It is time the international community to put sanctions on Cambodia,” he said.
He compared the current lack of political freedom to the 1980s, when Cambodia was a one-party communist state—also led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Who dares to express their opinion? They just wait to raise their hand [to pass laws],” he said of the new all-CPP parliament.
But Thlang, despite his struggle to support himself and preserve his political independence, said he still did not want to see any sanctions imposed. He said any such move would create misery in Champey commune, where villagers are already living close to the edge.
“Most of them owe money to the banks,” he said.
He still dreams of becoming a local official again and seeing his party reinstated, though the path to this goal is unclear.
“I always try,” he said. “And I hope my party will come back.”
Julia Wallace contributed reporting from Phnom Penh