Cablegate: Mondulkiri Province: Tradition, Elections and the Chinese

DE RUEHPF #0551/01 1030841
R 130841Z APR 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (U) Summary. During the Embassy's recent election monitoring
program, Emboffs visited Cambodia's remote Mondulkiri Province on
the Vietnamese border. Mondulkiri is a rapidly-changing region that
encapsulates most of the major issues affecting Cambodia and its
minority population -- property rights and tenancy, environmental
degradation, deforestation, illegal logging, land seizures and
Chinese economic expansion. Despite a strong sense of alienation
among minority Phnong and other tribal groups, Mondulkiri remains a
stronghold of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). End

The Road to Mondulkiri

2. (U) Mondulkiri Province borders Vietnam and is approximately
400 kilometers to the northeast of Phnom Penh. With an estimated
45,000 inhabitants, it is Cambodia's least populated province but is
also the largest in terms of geographic area (over 14,000 square
kilometers). Historically, the majority of the inhabitants have
been ethnic Phnong and other indigenous tribes. However, over the
past few years, ethnic Khmer and some Cham have been moving in to
settle "unclaimed" land. Upon entering Mondulkiri Province, the
main paved road ends and Khmer-style houses begin giving way to the
circular thatched huts of the Phnong as the road becomes narrower
and rougher and begins to wind up and down the foothills. The road
traffic dwindles to occasional trucks groaning under the weight of
fresh-cut timber.

3. (U) The road eventually passes through an unmanned checkpoint
entrance to the Sey Ma Bio-Diversity Protection Area with prominent
forest cover. However, when the road reaches a plateau, the
immediate areas are occupied by improvised Khmer-style houses and
lean-tos with no sign of water, sewage or electricity -- evidence of
the Khmer newcomers. There is pervasive clear-cutting and
slash-and-burn farming accompanied by smoldering tree stumps in the
distance. Sprinkled among the stumps in the gray, sandy soil are
little patches of cassava and vegetable crops. As the road leaves
the plateau and climbs up the foothills, the squatter settlements
give way to thicker forest cover interspersed with patches of
clear-cutting and reforestation projects.

Sen Monorom and the "Wild East"

4. (U) The provincial capital, Sen Monorom, has a population of
7,000 and is an unlikely international crossroads -- a couple of
paved roads, a spate of guesthouses, a traffic circle, a market
street, a ramshackle provincial theater, and four or five
restaurants. Despite the lack of amenities, the town has a
surprising cultural mix. There are a handful of Western NGO workers
and missionaries, the town's two-star hotel has Chinese financial
backing, Phnong tribespeople from the surrounding villages regularly
bring their livestock, produce and crafts to market, and Vietnamese
officials and businessmen make regular visits from the nearby
border. During Emboffs' brief visit, we met American missionaries,
an Israeli innkeeper, German tourists and a French restaurant owner.
There has been a significant increase in tourism over the last few
years, with many new guesthouses geared to the growing foreign
backpacker tourist trade. There are now enough foreign tourists and
NGOs to support a combination pizzeria/falafel shop.

5. (U) Despite the growth in tourism, Sen Monorom's reputation as
a shady border town remains valid. According to our embassy warden,
it is not unusual to see Vietnamese soldiers driving around town.
During our election monitoring visit, Emboffs' saw a Vietnamese
military officer and a group of well-dressed officials exit a local
business and drive off in an expensive, late model SUV with
Vietnamese plates. Despite their official appearance and
distinctive dress, they drew no attention or notice from the crowded

6. (U) Sen Monorom's small size and obscurity heightens the
disparities of wealth and influence. The local CPP headquarters,
European NGOs and guesthouses catering to foreigners occupy new,
freshly-painted buildings with the basic amenities. By contrast,
the local primary school a few blocks away is old and decrepit, with
no plumbing or electricity. The classrooms have only crude
blackboards and maps and the classroom benches and tables are
covered with graffiti, there are no books. The French NGO Action
contre Le Faim (Action against Hunger) set up operations due to
recent crop failures in the Phnong villages that have led to
increasing levels of malnutrition throughout Mondulkiri. Some
Phnong reportedly have sold their land for as little as 10 bags of
rice and have little means to support their families.

Visit to the Phnong Village of Pu Tru

PHNOM PENH 00000551 002 OF 003

7. (U) The election monitoring trip centered on Pu Tru, where
Emboffs were assisted by our local warden, a fluent speaker of both
Khmer and Phnong. Almost all the Phnong live in round, unventilated
thatched huts with neither plumbing nor electricity. The huts
require constant upkeep to remain habitable and usually must be
rebuilt after 7 years. The ceilings inside the huts are coated with
a black resinous soot from a constant fire that is tended in the
middle of the hard-packed dirt floor. The Phnong sit on suspended
wooden flooring planks that extend along the length of a hut. Dogs,
pigs and chickens rest underneath the planking and wander in and out
of the huts. Large cylindrical porcelain vats line the back of the
huts, usually containing homemade rice wine. Many of these vats
have rather intricate bas-relief and are said to be hundreds of
years old. For a typical Phnong family, these black vats are among
their most prized possessions.

8. (U) Yet in the midst of this traditional lifestyle, modern life
intrudes. Some huts have a motorcycle parked next to them and there
are occasional DVC players, radios and television sets. Khmer-style
houses are now fashionable and are the preferred housing for the
village chieftain and favored tribal elders. In the middle of the
village, a Japanese NGO has installed state-of-the-art solar energy
panels and the Red Cross has provided the Phnong a sophisticated
water filtration system to ensure a reliable source of potable
water. Despite the availability of electricity and treated water,
the villagers of Pu Tru still prefer to wash their clothes and bathe
in a nearby creek.

9. (U) After talking to a Phnong family in their hut, we then
toured the village fields and grazing areas. The seemingly random
patches of subsistence crops belie a rather sophisticated,
environmentally-sensitive agricultural system. The Phnong rotate a
variety of crops through a series of fields, often leaving fields
fallow for years before replanting. The Phnong also deliberately
plant a variety of different crops in small patches to take
advantage of the shade and/or disease resistance one plant can
provide for another.

Election Issues? What's An Election Issue?

10. (SBU) The villagers we spoke with were reluctant to voice
partisan political views on the upcoming commune elections.
Nevertheless, the adult villagers had a strong desire to vote and
were hoping they could secure rides from friends or from a village
elder to the polls. There seemed to be an unspoken disconnect
between the communal elections and the real concerns of their
village -- the ongoing encroachment of their lands by the Khmer and,
most recently, their new Chinese neighbors.

11. (SBU) Although the Phnong exist on meager resources, these
concerns pale in significance to the growing threat of land
confiscation, encroachment on their grazing areas and the
accompanying external pressures on their indigenous way of life.
Although not well articulated, the Phnong feel pressed on all sides.
Vietnam imposes constraints on their ability to travel to their
neighboring Montagnard cousins in Vietnam; Cambodia sends its
dispossessed lowland farmers to squat on their land and set up
tourist concessions on Phnong areas without their permission.

12. (SBU) Most despised now, however, are the Chinese who have
encroached on Phnong lands, but also have imposed severe grazing
restrictions, something the Khmer have never attempted. The Phnong
claim that their new Chinese neighbors have threatened to shoot any
cattle that stray onto Chinese-occupied land. Moreover, the Phnong
say the Chinese have also threatened to detain any Phnong suspected
of property crimes, meting out punishments outside of the Cambodian
criminal justice system. The Chinese routinely accuse the Phnong of
burning their new pine plantations. The Phnong counter that,
although they traditionally burn off grasslands every year to create
new pastures, they do not target the Chinese pine stands. Rather,
they maintain that the Khmer who work for the Chinese are angry at
getting paid only 5,000 riel (USD 1.25) per day and burn the
plantations themselves. Khmer locals reportedly are angry at the
Chinese for taking land that they had planned on occupying and may
have set fires in retaliation. One Phnong commune official has
reportedly seen Khmer policemen and soldiers setting fire to the

Elections: Co-Opted Tribal Elders Key to CPP Success
--------------------------------------------- --------

13. (U) Election day turnout on April 1 was modest in the
precincts surveyed, with most of the voting completed before lunch.
Voter queues were orderly except in the Phnong villages, where the
villagers often clustered outside the polling stations, usually the
village schoolhouse. No violent incidents or confrontations were
reported. The election officials seemed reasonably well-versed in
following the correct procedures at the polling stations. On two

PHNOM PENH 00000551 003 OF 003

separate occasions, Emboffs witnessed election officials turn away
unregistered or late-registered voters. The COMFREL monitors as
well as the political party agents were all cordial to each other.
There were no disputed ballots and the vote tallying proceeded in an
orderly fashion with only minor procedural delays. By early
evening, the monitored precinct reported lopsided victories for the
CPP, which garnered more than 80% of the votes. The opposition Sam
Rainsy Party (SRP) trailed with 16% of the vote followed by
FUNCINPEC with a remaining 4%. Local observers speculated that the
CPP's success was greatly assisted by the rather low turnout and the
CPP-affiliated Phnong tribal elders, who encouraged the Phnong to
vote as a bloc.


14. (SBU) Mondulkiri remains firmly in the hands of the CPP,
despite the many problems faced by its indigenous Phnong community.
The CPP's strategy of co-opting tribal elders and through them,
delivering the majority of Phnong voters to the CPP has paid off -
this tradition pre-dates UNTAC times and is also applied in
Ratanakiri. Given the low population density and expansive area of
Mondulkiri, the SRP and other political parties do not find the
expenditure of time, personnel, and resources to be cost-effective
in trying to mobilize an opposition vote. However, as Mondulkiri
becomes less isolated, the quickening pace of outside encroachment
on the traditional Phnong way of life could present the CPP with new
challenges in maintaining control over Phnong voters.


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