thmar koul district, Battambang province – After more than 20 years of dealing with family disputes and complaints about security, Kong Lim is tired.
Like many chiefs of the country’s more than 1,600 communes, Kong Lim has been in power since the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
In the last 22 years, he has governed Kong Charey commune’s 13,758 residents through wars, a fragile peace agreement and more fighting.
“Now I’m very exhausted,” said Kong Lim, 63. “My wife always has to do cultivation alone because I have to work for the commune. It’s hard for me because I haven’t been able to do anything for my house.”
He’s hoping he may be relieved of his duties after the country’s first commune elections scheduled for February. A survey taken last year by his ruling CPP, however, shows he is still the commune’s top pick for chief, and district officials have appointed him to be the CPP commune candidate.
“I want to refuse, but it’s difficult to say no, so I haven’t decided yet,” Kong Lim said. “If my family is OK, then maybe I will be commune chief again. But now I’m old and I really don’t want to be a candidate.”
Not many commune chiefs feel the same way as Kong Lim. Others interviewed who have also been in power for a long time say they want to continue on in their positions as commune chiefs. They contend their people still need them—an attitude that has election monitors questioning whether the commune elections will be fair and free of the violence that has plagued past ballots.
But for Kong Lim, not only is he tired of fulfilling his duties as commune chief, he’s also grown out of politics. Now he wants to focus on following Buddhist precepts.
“If I’m involved in politics, it means I have to exaggerate and lie so people think I’m good,” he said. “But according to Buddhism, that is a sin.”
Kong Lim, who has four children, was first appointed to help govern his commune during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime. Three men were chosen to be in charge—two workers and one educated person, Kong Lim, who finished high school and was a teacher before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
When the Vietnamese drove Khmer Rouge soldiers toward the Thai border, Kong Lim again was chosen to lead his commune. He said the most common problem he has to deal with is violence within families or among neighbors.
“It’s difficult to solve but I always try to have a good solution so people on both sides will have confidence in me,” he said.
He’s glad to see Cambodia embracing democracy with the commune elections, to change the leaders who have been in power for too long.
“We want to have a system that is up to international standards,” he said. “Now I’m like an old machine and we need a strong man to take over.”
In nearby Kdol commune in Battambang district, Yim Sakhorn knows he could be ousted from office with next year’s vote. But he, too, said the commune election is “a good thing.”
“The election is no problem,” he said. “It will depend on the people to choose. That’s the democratic way.”
But unlike Kong Lim, 65-year-old Yim Sakhorn said he likes his job and is happy to be the CPP candidate for the commune elections. He contends the 8,202 residents of his commune still support him and need him, evidenced by a CPP survey that showed he was the most popular candidate.
“I solve the problem for the people, so they still like me,” he said.
The biggest problem his commune residents have faced is the lack of access to water. Last year, Yim Sakhorn built a canal and collected money from all of the families in the commune to help pay for gas to run a water pump. The canal has solved the water shortage for now, but it needs to be dug deeper to increase the water supply.
“I want to develop the commune and solve problems for poor people,” he said.
He became commune chief in 1991—the year the Paris Peace Accords were signed—but had been involved in commune work since 1986. He will know in February whether he will be able to continue his work.
“If I lose, I will go back to farming and making rice,” he said.
Prim Suon, chief of Battambang’s Tuol Ta Ek commune, acknowledged that in the past, his ruling party hasn’t had the most positive reputation among his commune’s residents.
But in the past year or so, he said, that has changed because the people have seen the CPP build roads and other structures to help the 17,000 residents of Tuol Ta Ek.
And, he added, he wants to be selected as the commune chief in February because “the people want me to lead them again.”
“The people could not give up the old leaders because all the action is done by the CPP,” Prim Suon said. “I have spent my own money for road construction and some money for schools and hospitals. The people see by their eyes that the new people have done nothing.”
The most common problems he has to deal with are family violence and divorce. “There are so many of these cases in my commune,” Prim Suon said. “There are also many gangsters. I have to solve these problems.”
The 55-year-old said if he wins, however, it would be his last term as commune chief.
“It is enough for me,” said Prim Suon, who was deputy commune chief from 1985 and became the chief in 1990. “I’m 55, so I am tired, too.”
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