BATTAMBANG, Cambodia (Reuters) - 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 it had just 2 percent.
But the authoritarian government of former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen is now cracking down at every level on a party that had shown it might beat him at elections due next July. The longest-serving prime minister in the world accuses the CNRP of doing the bidding of the United States.
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 1.6 million people needed to register - either because they had come of age or had been missed before – and barely a quarter have done so ahead of a Nov. 9 deadline.
At stake is the 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 - around a 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 he had helped to drive out his former Khmer Rouge comrades. A 1991 peace deal ended civil war and U.N.-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.
Sin Rozeth, who took up politics after dropping out of university for lack of money, said she made some money through 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. They bought 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.
Va Sam, of Kok Khleang commune in Phnom Penh, said the interior ministry had taken over issuing documents such as land titles and birth certificates, previously a big source of funds for the commune.
Discrimination against CNRP commune chiefs was widespread, said Mu Sochua, a deputy of Kem Sokha who fled into exile fearing arrest.
“Other communes face the same targeting if we shine and show too much competence,” she told Reuters.
Battambang’s provincial governor, Nguon Ratanak, from the government of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), told Reuters local leaders had to obey the law and denied stopping anyone from developing their communes.
“They still want to apply the political policies used during the campaign,” he said. “Commune chiefs must work under the guidelines of the interior ministry, not their political party.”
If the CNRP is banned, with a court decision due on Nov. 16, the ruling party would take control of all the communes the CNRP currently leads, based on a change to the election law approved by Cambodia’s CPP-dominated parliament last month.
The government dismisses criticism that the crackdown ahead of next July’s election is turning Cambodia into a one-party state. It says it is only acting against those who have broken Cambodia’s laws.
Arrested in a midnight raid on Sept. 3, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was accused of plotting with Americans to organize a ‘color revolution’ like those that toppled eastern European strongmen.
“We can’t let this dangerous revolution happen in Cambodia,” said senior interior ministry official Huy Vannak. “You try to put an American jacket onto a Cambodian and it doesn’t fit.”
Among those forced out even before Kem Sokha’s arrest was the U.S. State Department funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), which spent 25 years on a democracy-building mission that cost an average $2 million a year for the past five years.
Sin Rozeth, who was born two years after Hun Sen came to power in 1985, has benefited from its training, as did many members of the ruling party. It included lessons in campaigning - trainers taught her not to attack other parties, she said - and how to present her own policies.
NDI said that since the recent elections, 138 ruling party members had participated in NDI activities along with 153 members of the opposition.
“If this was an effort to try to collude with the opposition then we’re guilty of colluding with the ruling party as well,” NDI president Kenneth Wollack told Reuters.
Within days of Kem Sokha’s arrest, a top Chinese official flew to Phnom Penh with words of support. China has replaced the United States as Cambodia’s biggest single donor by far.
In the U.S. Congress, Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin have introduced a resolution that could lead to travel restrictions on Cambodian leaders.
Cambodian officials say they don’t fear any penalties.
“The Americans can’t even control North Korea,” government spokesman Phay Siphan told Reuters.
Sin Rozeth believes the strategy of promising change locally as well as nationally helped explain her party’s success.
Facebook Live videos show the diminutive and energetic figure getting drains built through muddy streets of Battambang, famed for Cambodia’s finest jasmine rice and its French colonial architecture, winning her followers far beyond the city.
“I went out to meet people and get to know their problems. I went to funerals to pay condolences even if I didn’t know the people,” said Sin Rozeth.
“We just have to show what we can deliver day by day,” she said. “We’re a new generation and we want to show that administration can be effective and clean and free of charge.”
A 2013 video about that strategy was used as evidence against Kem Sokha.
In it, he says he has the backing of unnamed Americans for a plan to win power requiring that “before changing the top level, we need to uproot the lower one”.
For Kem Sokha, it was a legitimate political strategy in a democracy.
The government called it treason.
Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Martin Howell and Bill Tarrant