Outside a house in Pa’or village, 100 people huddle around a single light bulb and a blank television screen. Party slogans blare on a single loudspeaker.
A man, dressed in grey pants and a light blue polo shirt, walks from villager to villager handing out sheets of paper, showing the Cambodian People’s Party’s ballot position for Sunday’s commune elections.
His face illuminated only by the light from his cellphone, he asks: “Do you know who I am? Do you support me?”
In most cases, the answer is a nod of the head. They are aware of Chhay Thy, 48, once a thorn in the side of the ruling CPP, and now the party’s candidate for chief of Pate commune.
“Please remember the logo of the party and please mark your tick in the box,” he said, moving on to the next villager.
A long-time human rights monitor for one of Cambodia’s oldest rights groups, Adhoc, Thy was a frequent critic of the government, specifically in relation to natural resource management, illegal logging and ethnic minority rights in the country’s northwest.
While every Cambodian election season is rife with alleged defections and shifts in allegiance, Thy’s switch in January was different.
“I strongly appreciate the reforms of the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, especially reforms on land disputes, human rights problems, engagement during elections and increasing land ownership,” his statement read.
On the campaign trail in Pate, Thy highlights the work done to help the commune by senior CPP officials and tells them not to forget “Samdech Techo Hun Sen”, taking care to use the premier’s honorifics.
“So support CPP, please raise your hand, clap your hands. Long live the CPP! Long live the CPP!” he says, to a small smattering of applause.
An hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Banlung, Pate commune has a high density of ethnic minority Jarai residents, much like other communes in the province’s O’Yadav district.
Unlike other Ratanakkiri communes, however, in 2012 it was an electoral oasis for the Sam Rainsy Party, which later merged with the Human Rights Party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
As in most rural areas, the Cambodian People’s Party almost swept the province’s 50 communes – in some cases gaining the three top positions in the local council. But Pate went for the Sam Rainsy Party.
The CNRP’s defence of the commune has hit a few roadblocks, however. The party, which won around 60 percent of the commune’s 581 votes, will not only have to deal with Thy’s inclusion in the race but also its own internal battles.
In March, the name of sitting Commune Chief Rmam Yout was left off the candidate list. Similar problems were reported in neighbouring Bakham, Paknhai and Yatung communes, where incumbent councillors were also left out.
Yout then proceeded to leave the opposition party, and was seen in early April at a Cambodian People’s Party meeting, though earlier this week he claimed he was neutral and had not defected to the ruling party.
“I am a normal person. I don’t support any parties now,” he says.
But CNRP officials and supporters do not see it that way. A few kilometres from Kong Thom village in the commune, along a dirt track with waterlogged potholes, Rmam Kham Phorn is working to clear 11 hectares of land. He has around a dozen community members helping him plant a rice crop.
A cousin of Yout’s, Kham Phorn has replaced him at the top of the ballot. He says his cousin and Sev Naing, the commune chief elected in 2012 but subsequently arrested a year into his term for illegally transporting timber, have been unsuccessful.
“Yout and Naing did not help to develop the commune a lot,” he says. “Yout’s candidacy was terminated [and it] is right because he did not listen to senior party officers’ advice.”
Kham Phorn said such a letdown would not matter on June 4, as the CNRP had come to be associated with protecting land rights, and Jarai villagers were not willing to trust an outsider, he said.
“I have noticed that my community does not support Chhay Thy because they are living in an ethnic Jarai community, so they do not want a new person, who is not Jarai,” he said, even dismissing Thy’s Jarai wife.
Asked why the commune had voted unlike others in the province, Kham Phorn said the CPP’s policy of granting land leases to corporations – including for rubber plantations and a nearby gold mine – and the ensuing land rights disputes had long shifted the commune’s vote base to the opposition.
The same sentiment was felt across Jarai-dominated communes, he says, but the CNRP has failed to take advantage.
“CNRP lost the previous elections at those communes because the candidates did not know how to communicate with villagers,” he says. “So they had less support, but now CNRP has more support.”
Faced with criticism, Yout has no ill feelings for his cousin, instead blaming party seniors for his ouster. He is unwilling to divulge who he will support, as were villagers across the commune.
Speaking to a dozen villagers, most were unaware of the candidates on offer or their credentials, but said they were familiar with party logos and which they would choose.
Even in Pa’or, where Thy held a campaign event a day earlier, most villagers were unaware of him and his human rights background.
Some admit that there had been some development in the commune – such as improvements in the quality of roads and construction of a few wells – and that further promises would figure prominently in their decision on June 4.
“I want a commune chief who has ability to manage the commune well and to find a market for cassava. Nowadays, the price of cassava is cheap. It is worthless,” said Kan Sokea, who moved from Kandal province more than a year ago.
Balancing on a moto while lighting a cigarette, Sorl Tvin, 65, lays out his requirements for a candidate.
“I would like a new commune chief to develop wells, electricity and schools,” he says. “I want an ethnic Jarai as a commune chief.”
Thy’s new allegiance shows not only on his shirt pocket but also his wristwatch, which has a picture of Hun Sen on the dial, and his car, a CPP sticker-emblazoned Toyota Corolla.
In the few months since joining the CPP, Thy has immersed himself in the party’s inner workings, accompanying the provincial police chief on a visit to O’Yadav district to sit in on a district-level party meeting.
Thy admits that his engagement with the community prior to joining the CPP was limited, but that regular meetings like the one in Pa’or with villagers was increasing his name recognition.
“They will know me after the 12 days of campaigning in the villages,” he says.
And, in an about-face from his former life as a rights advocate, Thy has nothing but good things to say about the ruling party, praising its concrete policies to help the people while criticising the CNRP, which he says had failed to service the villager’s needs.
“CNRP has served two mandates in Pate, but they don’t have even a table to sit and work at in their room [at the commune hall],” he says.
Thy’s entry into the tiny commune’s electoral battle has invigorated CPP working group member Ly Thuch. “Chhay Thy, a former Adhoc coordinator, has enough experience, ability and will serve the local people. So we have high hopes to win [against the] opposition party,” he says.
He claims the commune had seen no development whatsoever and that the opposition party’s failures would lead the commune to turn to the CPP.
But senior Ratanakkiri CNRP official Iem Oeun disagrees. He says the party would not only retain Pate, but would potentially win at least 10 of the province’s 50 communes, brushing aside Chhay Thy’s impact on the race.
“Villagers normally vote for a party, not for an individual. In Pate, the CPP never wins,” he says. “Villagers will not vote for Chhay Thy, because they are angry [with him] and curse him.”
For Thy, these barbs have become a regular feature of his new job. He said he faces constant criticism from other activists and opposition supporters who feel he joined the wrong party.
“I joined this party, and then [the opposition] party was unhappy,” he says, as he prepares to drive off to a district-level meeting. “I am cursed and insulted a lot, but I’m patient for the interest of the commune.”