Fri, Nov 10, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Cambodian opposition’s local successes draw strong government backlash

Sin Rozeth dropped out of university, made some money by helping others with real-estate deals before entering politics and helping to develop her community. Her work drew the attention of the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior

By Matthew Tostevin  /  Reuters, BATTAMBANG, Cambodia

Illustration: Mountain people

Ochar Commune Chief 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 percent of the 1,646 local seats at stake.

Previously the party held just 2 percent.

However, the authoritarian government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, is now cracking down at every level on a party that had shown it might beat him at elections due in July next year. The longest-serving prime minister in the world accuses the CNRP of doing the bidding of the US.

Hun Sen’s government has arrested CNRP leader Kem Sokha on treason charges and taken steps to have the party dissolved altogether. Once vocal rights groups have also been silenced and media critical of the ruling party have been repressed.

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 that 1.6 million people needed to register — either because they had come of age or had been missed before — and barely one-quarter had done so ahead of yesterday’s deadline.

At stake is a 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 — about one-quarter of the population — between 1975 and 1979.

Hun Sen’s dominance dates from 1985, when he became prime minister under the patronage of occupying Vietnamese forces, who 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 maneuvered to keep power and has used force and the courts to undermine opponents ever since.

BUDGET FREEZE

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, bringing 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.

Commune Chief Va Sam, of Kok Khleang in Phnom Penh, said the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior had taken over issuing documents such as land titles and birth certificates, previously a big source of funds for the commune.

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