“We have no choice”: on compulsory evictions and elections in Cambodia

Voters gather round a noticeboard in Phnom Penh. Image: Getty.

“We have to go, we have no choice,” says the young woman. “They are watching me.”

It is end of July and election-day in Cambodia, and out of fear of repercussions, she will go to vote – despite the fact that, the main opposition party having been dissolved, she has no party left for her to support.

The woman, who requested to remain anonymous, stands next to her apartment building in Borei Keila, situated at the heart of the kingdom’s capital Phnom Penh. But it’s an apartment that might exist not much longer.

Borei Keila is one of the longest-standing land-disputes in the country, with company Phanimex laying claim to the lands of hundreds of families. Since the beginning of the dispute more than ten years ago, indeed, hundreds of families have been evicted or accepted compensation. The woman is one of a handful of people left at the site, holding out in hope of receiving adequate compensation.

Over the past few weeks, the Cambodia government has threatened legal actions against those who openly boycotted the vote. This comes after the authorities arrested the opposition leader Kem Sokha, and the Supreme Court dissolved his party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, at the end of last year.

Seemingly trying to uphold some legitimacy, the government urged people to vote: a low turnout would show the disillusion many voters felt since the dissolution of the CNRP, which won more than 40 per cent of the popular vote in last year’s commune elections.

In the lead-up to the elections, more than 30 news outlets were forced to shut down or taken off air, critical voices arrested, and 118 opposition members banned from politics for five years.

Afraid she will be denied compensation, so as to punish her as a non-voter, the woman is on her way to vote, so that she can show her finger, darkened by indelible ink, for the next few days.  “If I don’t go, I will have pressure,” she says. “I feel quite terrible. This is not what I want to do.”


Despite feeling forced to vote, the woman says she might quietly show her discontent by invalidating her ballot sheet.

A floor down, her neighbor Ming chose a different kind of protest and speaks openly about boycotting the elections. “I think there is no democracy. That’s why I don’t go to vote. There is no party I love, no one I’m satisfied with,” she says.  Ming says going to vote won’t make a difference to her case. “If I vote for them they will still put pressure on me. If I go to vote, they will still evict me.”

Community leader Sar Sorn agrees. “I don’t go to vote because the party I love doesn’t exist anymore, because today’s leadership is destruction. They destroy the nation, they destroy resources, they violate people’s rights, they make people unemployed, and they evict people,” she says.

Her boycott didn’t go unnoticed, however: authorities were monitoring her, Sorn says. That morning, she recounts, she had heard a security personnel saying into his walkie-talkie that she was on her way to the polling station. But she only went there to see how many people showed up, and when she left the school-turned-polling-station, she was followed again. “Wherever I go, I’m monitored,” she says.

Further up north in Boeung Kak area, another woman tells CityMetric how the fear of losing her land might push her to vote. She strongly opposes the government – but says she hasn’t made up her mind yet whether she’ll make her way to the polling station nearby before it closes at 3 pm.

“I will see at 2 or 2:30 pm whether I want to vote,” she says.  “I feel sad and I don’t know what to do. One heart wants to go to vote, one heart does not want to. If I go to vote, it’s equivalent to supporting the Prime Minister and supporting him treating people badly.”

She has also found herself in a land-dispute for several years. The Boeung Kak community used to live around a 90-hectare lake in the north of Phnom Penh. But when Shukaku Inc., the real estate developer owned by ruling party senator Lao Meng Khin, came in in 2007 and filled it in, many saw their houses flooded or destroyed; others were evicted.  Protests turned violent; several activists were arrested.

Tep Vanny, a prominent and award-winning human rights defender from the community, has been in jail for two years based on charges that rights groups say were political.

One woman in her mid-fifties, who also requested to remain anonymous due to fears of repercussions, tells me that she has only been offered a land title for half of the land she is entitled to. She did not receive any compensation when her house was flooded.

 “If I don’t go to vote, they will not give me the land title and accuse me of wrongdoings,” she says. She is also afraid of not receiving public services from the municipality anymore – of being blacklisted if she doesn’t show up at the polling station.

But like Borei Keila residents, she says she will not vote for the ruling party. “Maybe I will leave the ballot blank,” she says.

Later that day, the National Election Committee (NEC) announces turnout. In Phnom Penh, the preliminary turnout grows from 58.4 percent in the morning to 69.7 percent in the afternoon, to a final count of 80.0 percent in the evening – this despite reports of empty polling stations from observers and journalists all afternoon. The same day the ruling party declares a landslide victory; in the coming days, it announces having won all 125 parliamentary seats.

For the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila residents, this was a predictable . “It’s like a single-boxing game,” says Sar Sorn. “A sportsman is hitting alone.”

 
 
 
 

What’s the largest parliamentary constituency in the world?

Geraldton is one of the more bustling urban centres in the Division of Durack. Image: Terrance Doust/Wikimedia Commons.

Australia recently had an election, a sentence that, from my fairly limited understanding of Australian politics, is almost always true. It provided the latest of those shock result that this decade’s politics seems to specialise in, with the right-wing government unexpectedly surviving and the left-wing opposition looking at a bit baffled in a “What else were we supposed to do?” kind of a way.

But the result wasn’t the thing that impressed me about it. What got me was the size of the constituencies.

Australia, remember, is huge, in a way that’s difficult to conceive of as a European. Perth is over 2,000 miles from Sydney – a distance that’s far enough to take you from London to Syria or Mali. But there aren’t quite 25 million people in Australia, well under half the population of the UK, and they tend to cluster in a few areas around the coast.

Consequently the country contains a lot of empty space. Which means that when the Australian Electoral Commission came up with boundaries for its parliamentary seats, this happened:

Whoa. Image: Australian Electoral Commission.

The six seats coloured on that map between them cover 6.1m km2 of Australia’s 8.0m km2. The other 146 seats get less than a quarter of the country’s landmass between them.

How big are we talking here? Well the largest of them is the Division of Durack, which covers 1.63m km2 – nearly two-thirds of the state of Western Australia. There is no European country that comes even close to being that size (unless you count Russia, which cheats by including a large chunk of Asia). This is an area three times the size of France. And it delivers one MP.

Wowser. Image: Barrylb/Wikimedia Commons.

Is it the largest constituency in the world, though?

Before getting into that, let’s provide some more context. The UK has a landmass of around 242,000km2 (or, not quite one sixth of Durack). The House of Commons has 650 constituencies. So the average UK parliamentary seat covers an area of around 373km2, which means you could get around 4,300 of the buggers into Durack.

There’s quite a lot of variation within that, though. The smallest constituency is Jeremy Corbyn’s own Islington North, which is just 7.4km2. The largest is rather bigger: Ross, Skye & Lochaber, a huge swathe of Highlands and islands, which is a relatively big 12,000km2, or well over a thousand times bigger.

Ross, Skye & Lochaber. Image: Wereon./Wikimedia Commons.

It’s still well over a thousand times smaller than Durack, though – so where might we find something bigger?


It’s tempting to look to the European Parliament on the grounds it covers most of a continent, but we instantly run into two issues. One is that most of its constituencies are multi-member PR ones, which feels like cheating. Another is that the biggest of them are entire European countries – and we already know that Durack is substantially bigger than all of those. The largest by area turns out to be France, which elects 79 MEPs and still only manages to be a third the size. So, that’s out.

One possibility is Alaska which, being a huge state with a tiny population, sends just one member to the US House of Representatives. I sort of assumed that was going to be my conclusion to this piece, on the grounds that Alaska is huge: to be specific, 1.72m km2. That’s slightly bigger than Durack, if by “slightly bigger” you mean “by an area large enough you could keep Portugal in it”.

Even that, though, isn’t the biggest. Canada is enormous – the second biggest country in the world by area – but most of its population lives hard by the southern border, leaving a vast wilderness in the north.

In that wilderness, you will find Nunavut, a federal election district which sends a single member to the House of Commons of Canada. It has an area of 1.88m km2.

The frozen north. Image: EOZyo/Wikimedia Commons.

That is, you will notice, bigger than Durack. It’s also, so far as much of the internet seems to think, the biggest electoral constituency in the world.

Except I think much of the internet is wrong.

Canada, remember, is only the second biggest country by area on the planet. The biggest is Russia. And leaving aside questions about what exactly counts as a democracy, Russia does hold elections to the Duma.

Those elections are fairly complicated: there’s a two-tier system, in which 225 of members are elected on a proportional, Russia-wide basis, and the other half represent specific constituencies. But nonetheless, that means there are 225 constituencies in Russia which elect a single representative to the country’s parliament.

The motherland: Yakutsk is in orange on the right. Image: Galmar/Wikmiedia Commons.

The biggest of these, best one can tell, is Yakutsk, which covers the entirety of the Sakha Republic, in Russia’s far east. That is bigger than Durack. A lot bigger. It covers an area of 3.1m km2. Which is very big indeed: nearly as big as India, but with roughly a billion fewer people.

It’s quite difficult to think of a profound conclusion to all this, so let’s end on an old favourite. This is one of the most mind-blowing maps I’ve ever seen. As many people live in the area coloured blue – which, not coincidentally, contains all the giant constituencies we’ve discussed in this piece – as live in the area coloured red (Bangladesh and a couple of Indian states).

Wow. Image: Ibisdigitalmedia.

The world is mostly empty.

You can read more about that last map here.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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