A Tiger Rules the Mountain

The world's longest serving Prime Minister and Cambodia's pursuit of democracy

Candlelight Commune Councillors

Chapter 46, Chapter two

‘In the early 1980s, after the Khmer Rouge had been overthrown, Phalla was given responsibility for helping to settle 50 families in Pdao Chum. The local authorities were impressed so gave him another 50 families to help settle, and then more again and before long, young Phalla, still in his twenties, was deputy village chief. In the 1993 election, he was with the CPP although drifted away in the years after. Shortly before the 2002 commune election, Phalla, a dry and wet season rice farmer, saw a sign outside a house:

“The sign had three words on it. It said ‘Integrity. Honesty. Justice.’ I thought, ‘I have these three in my heart so maybe that’s the party.’ It was the Sam Rainsy Party and they asked me to join. In 2007, I stood as the Party’s second candidate and was elected and then in 2012, I was elected Deputy Commune Chief.”

‘Despite being replaced as Chief and no longer even a councillor, it was Phalla, and his digger, who villagers went to for help when there was flooding. It was him who gathered villagers, many of whom he had helped to settle during the 1980s, to build a road from rice fields to the village raising $2500 and contributing $500 of his own money. I asked him if it was an easy decision to stand for the Candlelight Party.’

“It wasn’t an easy decision but I’m used to things being difficult. The CPP told me I wouldn’t win. They try to warn me I won’t win.”

“Were there any problems when you were campaigning?”

“There were no problems for me during the campaign. It was fine.” I looked at him, barely shifting in his seat thinking he would remain steady in a hurricane.

Chapter 46, Chapter Two

“Did they ever pressure you or try to stop you from standing?”

“They put a lot of pressure. A lot of pressure. They would try to bribe me as well. Offer me money or positions, but I only need three meals a day – that is all I can eat.”

‘Phalla sat square to the table with his head up and a mammoth book sitting in front of him. His eyes barely flickered at my questions as if foreign visitors to his village home was a normal occurrence.’

‘Before leaving, I asked the married father of four what the book was on the table in front of him.’

“It is the book of all the criminal laws. I have read most of it so that I can refer to it in case people want to challenge me. Want to look down on me.”

Chapter 46, Chapter Two

We arrived at Yot’s house, similar to Phalla’s but smaller and with stilts noticeably shorter, while Yot was still making his way back from his five-hectare mango and cassava plantation. We knew it was his house as it was bedecked in Candlelight banners and logos, and we soon saw him chugging along on his old, faded black Honda 125 that was missing a piece of bodywork. He jumped off his moto and bounced into the stilted area under the house to quickly change his shirt and wipe down the wooden table we sat at on wooden stools. ‘

‘Yot grinned to welcome us, showing off the whiskers at the side of his moustache which had smooth skin in the middle. He took off his wide-brimmed hat that was tilting backwards pointing to the sun, putting it down on the table and I noticed the dark soil ingrained in the wrinkles of his hands and under his nails. He straightened his weathered beige shirt before sitting down and then scrambled to find his thin-rimmed glasses, which were folded at the bridge like a pocketknife, picking them up along with a notebook and pen ready for our conversation.’

Chapter 46, Chapter Two

‘I thanked Yab Yot, Commune Chief of rural Kraya in the heart of Cambodia, and gave him $2.50 for petrol as he had to return to the fields that afternoon. We shook hands and walked the few metres together from under his house-on-stilts up to the road, pausing as a chicken wobbled past our feet. Just before leaving, Rithisak asked to take a photo of Yot in front of his house, so he straightened his shirt again, smoothed his moustache, and remembered to throw his cigarette away just before being snapped, standing under the banner of a large Candlelight.’

Buy the Book

Online & in store

The Tiger

Hun Sen is the longest serving Prime Minister in the world – ruling since 1985.

Election 2018

Photos and exceprts from the crucial 2018 when the CPP were aiming for control.

HowTiger Started

The election of 2013 startled me. I had never seen such passion about an election before.