Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

In just four communes, the opposition stronghold remained

Newly elected Candlelight Party commune chief, Nhem Sarom, 52, in Stoung district’s Chamna Loeu commune, Kampong Thom province. Photo taken on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath
Newly elected Candlelight Party commune chief, Nhem Sarom, 52, in Stoung district’s Chamna Loeu commune, Kampong Thom province. Photo taken on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

Kampong Thom/ Kampong Cham Provinces: About 80 kilometers from Kampong Thom town, the communes of Kraya and Doung in Prasat Balang district represent almost the only remaining opposition stronghold. 

These two communes, along with Stung district’s Chamna Loeu commune and Pdao Chum commune in Kampong Cham province, are the only communes out of 1,652 where the Candlelight Party managed to secure commune chief positions. Despite 17 parties taking part in the June 5 polls, the Cambodian People’s Party won the rest, according to preliminary results.

CamboJA reporters traveled to Kampong Cham and Kampong Thom province to meet the four newly elected Candlelight Party commune chiefs to learn about how they managed to retain a foothold.

Kraya commune, Kampong Thom

Yab Yot, 52, who first joined the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in 1998, has held the commune chief position for three consecutive mandates since 2012. His party has changed just as many times.

After the SRP and Human Rights Party merged to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2013, Yot won the June 2017 commune chief position running as a CNRP candidate. When the opposition CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court the following November, he was urged to join the CPP. After he refused, his position was given to a CPP member.

Yot counts himself among the opposition activists who refused to surrender to the ruling party despite being pressured continuously. Eventually, he returned to politics with the Candlelight party in December 2021.

“I was lobbied for four months to join the CPP, but they cannot buy my heart,” he said, “A lot of people here support me, so I cannot betray them, they already made a change, so I must respect their will.”

Yab Yot, 52, the newly elected commune chief from the Candlelight Party in Kraya commune, Prasat Balang district, Kampong Thom. Photo taken on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

Despite his years of service, Yot was surprised to learn he had been re-elected as commune chief.

“During the election campaign, I just read the party’s leaflets and called on people to vote for the Candlelight Party,” he said. “I did not expect that I would still get the support and love from the people.”

“We can just compare ourselves to a dancer. When we are dancing, we cannot judge ourselves as a nice dancer but we let the audience do so. The people may think I am a nice dancer, that is why they continue to support me,” he said.

Yot pledged to address the issues faced by people in a transparent and fair manner.

“The first thing I need to do when taking office, I will hold a public forum in the commune to hear the issues raised by the people,” he said. “We will see what their challenges and needs are, we want to hear real words from them.”

Yot said his previous success has come from addressing concrete problems faced by his community. In 2010, the government provided a land concession to private companies for a rubber plantation that impacted hundreds of farmers. When Yot was first elected commune chief two years later, he led a negotiation with authorities and the companies to reach an agreement acceptable to the community.

A motorist drives past the Candlelight Party’s sign in Kraya commune, Kampong Thom province’s Prasat Balang district. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

Yot believes that some local leaders have been unable to resolve similar land issues because they conspire with companies and abuse the people.

“We take the people’s need to put on the table and talk. I never attack others, but I just try my best to serve people in the commune. I will bring their issues to be discussed and addressed as possible.”

In Kraya, the CPP received 1128 votes to the Candlelight Party’s 1388 votes.

Doung Commune, Kampong Thom

All four of the party’s newly elected commune chiefs have a similar background. Ping Sokhorn, 52, has also been elected repeatedly starting in the 2012 election.

He said that since joining the Sam Rainsy Party and then the CNRP, he has faced many challenges as well as pressure to join the ruling party.

“The other activists and I have been encountering many problems. But I think I can still convince all my activists that we should keep going,” he said. “It comes from our heart, so we must do it and go forward.”

Ping Sokhorn, 52, a newly elected commune chief from the Candlelight Party in Doung commune, Prasat Balang district, Kampong Thom. Photo taken on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

He said the reason the opposition remains strong in this commune is because of partisan behavior among local authorities and corruption in local public services that had occurred after he was forced to leave his office following the 2017 dissolution of the CNRP.

“The division of social land concessions to the poor families based on partisanship, [as well as] providing the IDPoor card and public services [based on partisanship] is unfair. These are the issues that make people unhappy,” he said.

“The people still trust me since I was with CNRP. I am an honest person, and maybe they think I always care about the poor and respond to the people’s needs, so they keep supporting me,” he said.  

Sokhorn pledged to address local issues with justice and fairness, and without political bias. However, he said he is worried that because he is from the opposition party, he will face challenges from the local government as he tries to implement changes.

In Doung, the CPP received 983 votes and the Candlelight Party 1245.

Chamna Loeu commune, Kampong Thom

In Stung district’s Chamna Loeu commune, Nhem Sarom, 52, said he’s committed to being a model commune chief and serving the people faithfully. Like Phalla, he was commune chief in 2017 for just a few months before being forced from his position.

“My commitment is to serve all citizens in accordance with the commune’s decentralization policy, not to commit corruption,” he said. “If people trust us, we will do our best and do it honestly to serve them.”

Roads in Trapeang Chor village, Chamna Loeu commune of Stoung district on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

Sarom said his commune faces poor roads and a lack of irrigation infrastructure in some villages. He said his constituents also complain about public services for which they are required to pay unofficial fees.

“The first thing to be solved is to repair damaged roads in the villages, which the people need,” he said. However, he is also waiting to see the commune budget because without it, he will not be able to do so. 

Sarom expressed some concerns that his being from the opposition party may see his community shortchanged.

“I thought that when we want to develop roads in a commune, we may not receive the budget on time as planned. I’m concerned that upper-level leaders want to hurt us,” he said.

In Chamna Loeu, the CPP received 1789 votes and the Candlelight Party received 2285.

Pdao Chum commune, Kampong Cham

After the dissolution of CNRP, Chhang Phalla, 60, kept silent for five years to avoid persecution but regularly received verbal threats. At the time of the CNRP dissolution, in 2017 he had just won the position as commune chief for the first time. 

“Someone asked me to integrate [join the CPP] and promised to keep me in the commune chief position,” he said. “They promised to help me with whatever I want, but I rejected it.”

Chhang Phalla, 60, the newly elected Pdao Chum commune chief from the Candlelight Party in Cheung Prey district, Kampong Cham province. Photo taken on June 9, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

Phalla was elected as the new commune chief of Pdao Chum after joining the Candlelight Party in late 2021.

Phalla said he continues his work with the opposition without fear since he is satisfied with the party’s policies.

“People want to see local leaders who are responsible. They don’t want to vote for those who get power after the election and come to threaten them,” he said.

Though Phalla had not served as commune chief during the last five years, he has already begun an initiative to build a 1,000-meter irrigation canal.

A villager walks her bicycle into Pdau Chum commune office on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

He told CamboJA that currently the biggest challenge in the commune is lack of irrigation system as the reservoir has been abused by powerful people.

“When I was elected as a commune chief, people immediately asked me to solve this problem. So, it’s a challenge too,” he said.

The Candlelight Party received 2,296 votes in Pdao Chum commune compared with 2,076 votes for the CPP.