The ‘Change’ Commune: Outlier in a CPP-Dominated Province Has Rebellious Streak

O’Smach commune’s Candlelight Party candidate Nhan Sarom in May 2022. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)
O’Smach commune’s Candlelight Party candidate Nhan Sarom in May 2022. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)
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O’Smach commune, Oddar Meanchey

Oddar Meanchey province gave the ruling CPP one of its most decisive wins in the 2017 election. Across the province, the ruling party — which was then facing a strong challenge from the CNRP — won handsome victories in 23 communes; in some constituencies, the ruling party registered more than three times the votes of the opposition party.

There was only one exception to this near-sweep — O’Smach commune. The small commune sits to the north of the somewhat rectangular-shaped province and contains a border checkpoint with neighboring Thailand.

The 2017 results revealed O’Smach to be a pro-opposition flash in the province, also bucking a wider trend of the CNRP’s weak showings in northern provinces.

Road 68 to O’Smach crests over a hill to reveal the small border town. Driving towards the checkpoint, the town spreads out to the right, small dirt roads crisscrossing in Chamkar Chek village.

Nhan Sarom is riding his motorcycle on one of these dirt roads, a Cambodian and Candlelight Party flag attached to the rear of the vehicle. Fitted with a loudspeaker and sound system, Sarom is blasting policy promises of the Candlelight Party, interspersed with party songs.

He is followed by two colleagues, wearing white shirts with the Candlelight logo, and his family, who routinely get off their motorcycle to click photographs of Sarom as he passes by.

The 59-year-old is the commune chief candidate for the opposition party, having been the first deputy chief in 2017, when the CNRP pulled off its sole victory in the province. The seat was handed to the ruling CPP when the Supreme Court banned the party later that year.

While he grew up in Siem Reap, Sarom was stationed in the forests near O’Smach fighting for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s forces against the Vietnamese.

Except for a small one-year stint in the 1990s when he joined the police force in Phnom Penh, he has lived in or around O’Smach commune, making him somewhat of a well-known person.

“I have lived here for a long time. That is why most people trust me,” he says sitting at a concrete table outside his home.

But this was only a small part of the CNRP’s victory in 2017. Sarom believes that the semi-urban nature of the commune means people have better access to education and are better informed about issues, making them far more open and discerning about the performance of their local officials.

“They want a change. They do not want the same leader every term,” he says.

There is a long list of grievances Sarom has with the CPP’s performance for the last five years. Most of the roads are dirt roads, there is alleged corruption in issuing essential documents like family books and ID cards, and the ruling party did not uniformly distribute aid during the pandemic.

The Candlelight Party’s Nhan Sarom campaigns in Oddar Meanchey’s O’Smach commune in May 2022. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)

The commune voted a rough 60-37 percent split for CNRP in the last election, with the rest of the votes shared by three other small parties in the fray. Commune residents split along party lines when talking about the issues and their expectations from their next chief.

Sok Heng runs a small drink and coffee stall near the local market. She was happy with the CPP commune chief’s performance in the last five years.

“I think there is development. They paid attention to people,” Heng said, speaking of commune officials.

She does admit that while she has not faced problems with the commune hall — both as an individual and local vendor — there were others who might say differently. She didn’t give details of who those people might be.

Walking along one of the dirt roads, away from the main strip of the town, Nheng Somnang is probably one of these people. She said there had been little development in the commune and was unhappy being charged $12.5 to get her family book.

The former casino worker — she used to work at the O‘Smach Casino and Resort till the pandemic hit — was not surprised people had voted for the opposition in 2017, repeating the CNRP’s slogan that people in the commune wanted “change.”

“People want a change, so they voted for the CNRP,” Somnang said. “If they change it would be better than the CPP. For example, even the prime minister can also be changed.”

Lim Mouly, who is feeding her baby and chatting with two other women, is more ambivalent when it comes to local officials. She was not hassled to get essential documentation from the chief, but said little had been done to help people with jobs and income generation. But as the election neared, the bag of gifts had loosened.

“I have never had any party to help my family. But when the election was coming, I saw the CPP helping poor people. They offer gifts to people before the election.”

The ruling CPP campaigns in Oddar Meanchey’s O’Smach commune in May 2022. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)
The ruling CPP campaigns in Oddar Meanchey’s O’Smach commune in May 2022. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)

Ouk Bunheng, O’Smach’s CPP commune chief, arrives at the commune hall in a white luxury SUV. He greets reporters and immediately takes a call. He cancels a scheduled interview and heads for a ruling party meeting.

He then refuses an interview for the next two days and even stops answering calls. But calling again using a different phnom number, reporters are able to get a short interview.

Bunheng denies allegations that his office expects small fees in return for processing essential documents and even denies residents’ assertion that the CPP has been giving gifts to get votes in Sunday’s election.

“In the past, during Covid-19 we aided poor people, but during the election campaign this was not the case,” he says.

Even the commune chief agrees there is a rebellious streak among the electorate who are looking for a change of chief and more accountability from officials.

“People want to change their leader because people here think differently. If they have a problem with their leaders, they want to change them,” he says.

Back at the home of Candlelight’s Sarom, the mosquitoes are buzzing in droves Saturday evening. Sarom swats at them and says people were able to see through the gifts given by the ruling party and were keenly focused on getting democratic change.

“If they are offered gifts they will take them, but [the CPP] cannot read the people’s mind while voting,” he said.

“They take gifts with their left hand but then they vote with their right hand.”

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