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Wearing an orange robe and speaking calmly into his smartphone, the Venerable Luon Sovath eased his way through the throngs of people gathered outside polling station 867 in Phnom Penh.
He paused his monologue only to adjust his cellphone, talking for hours to his Facebook followers about what he saw and heard as Cambodians went to the polls for Sunday’s commune elections.
“In a democracy, the people own the country and have an obligation to come and vote,” he said during his Facebook Live broadcast. This obligation included participation by Buddhist monks like him. “Monks are also people,” he added.
Luon Sovath, 37, is the most prominent member of a group of monks who have become citizen journalists, monitoring political events and human rights conditions in Cambodia on social media.
Their efforts are part of a growing campaign by Cambodians who are using the internet to get around the government’s stranglehold on mass media and civic life.
Facebook, news apps and political memes have allowed the monks and the country’s nascent political opposition to connect directly with Cambodians who have scant access to independent news media.
“Facebook changed communication and politics, because whatever politicians did, we all knew,” Luon Sovath said. “Good or bad, we could know by Facebook.”
“Previously, they just showed the good things on television. The violence against people, the land abuses, the forest clearances and the corruption they did not show on television.”
The government of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party operates or has influence over all of the country’s television stations; the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has spent years trying to get a licence to operate its own channel, without success.
So those like Luon Sovath who wanted to bring transparency to Cambodia sought inexpensive and accessible ways to connect with people, many in poor villages, outside the government-controlled networks.
“The Cambodian People’s Party has many television stations and facilities already, so we are helping people who don’t have anything, who are poor,” Luon Sovath said.
When a government critic was assassinated last year, another monk with a wide online following, But Buntenh, tracked down the killer and where he lived, breaking the news online before the police or journalists made it to the scene.
On Sunday, Buntenh was posting Twitter updates from polling stations and broadcasting election results on his own Facebook Live stream.
The monks’ Election Day videos included descriptions of polling procedures, interviews with voters and exhortations for Cambodians to get out and vote.
At one point during his broadcast, Luon Sovath was expelled from a polling station by police officers and threatened with legal action. Thousands of people viewed the encounter online, showing their support for the monk by posting emojis on his live stream.
Previous elections for local officials have not generated much interest because the government’s political machine has been so dominant that results were a foregone conclusion.
But a newly formed opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, performed well in the 2013 national parliamentary elections, setting off waves of street protests.
Though the opposition has struggled since then to gain a political foothold, it is still believed to have significant support among voters.
Meas Ny, a political researcher in Cambodia, said that in recent travels to rural areas, he noticed a marked increase in villagers’ willingness to chat and banter about politics in public, the type of open discourse that once made many people uncomfortable.
“The people are eager to see change,” Ny said.
Unusually large crowds gathered in Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon to watch the votes be counted, and late in the day the National Election Committee announced that turnout had been a record 85.7 percent of 7.8 million registered voters.
“People are more enthusiastic, are more interested in observing the political process, and they wanted to witness the election,” said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, an anti-corruption organisation.
By late Sunday, the National Election Committee issued a statement on national television saying that only some of the results in 1,646 local races had been tallied, and that counting would continue yesterday.
A government-aligned news media outlet reported that the CPP had won 1,163 of the local administrations, while the Cambodia National Rescue Party gained control of 482, or about 30 percent, up from 3 percent. A spokeswoman for the opposition, Kem Monovithya, said the party believed it had won 46 percent of the popular vote.
The official results are to be announced no later than June 25. Observers are watching results closely as an indicator of what to expect in national parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.
Unofficial results by government-aligned Fresh News suggested the CPP had won 1,163 commune chief seats compared to 482 for the CNRP and one for the Khmer National Unity Party.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party claimed it had secured more than 1,100 commune seats out of a possible 1,646, while the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party said it had secured huge gains and a large proportion of the overall vote in an election that was largely free of irregularities.
Unofficial results posted by Fresh News, a pro-government website, suggested the CPP had won 1,163 commune chief seats compared to 482 for the CNRP and one for the Khmer National Unity Party.
If the figures are accurate, it would signify large gains for the opposition, which won just 40 seats in the 2012 commune elections.
The National Election Committee was supposed to start announcing results shortly after polls closed, but by the evening had yet to start posting official results.
The CNRP claimed it had won 46% of the votes and more than 500 communes, including winning more than half of the communes in Phnom Penh.
Kem Sokha, CNRP president, said he hoped the local election results were an indication of support going into the general election scheduled for next year.
“The CNRP was successful and took a big stride in the commune elections,” he said in a statement. “The result will be the foundation that we build on to win in 2018.”
Chan Samnang, a female opposition candidate standing in Russey Keo commune in the capital, said she had won by some 3,400 votes over her CPP rival.
Samnang held the commune from 2007 to 2012 when she lost the seat amid claims of election fraud.
“The current voting system is not 100 percent good, but it is better than last time,” she said.
She claimed that she won this time around because locals recognized the work she had done for them in the past.
Peung Chansreyroth, 34, said she voted for the CNRP because she wanted change.
“I voted for the CNRP because I wanted a fair commune chief,” she said.
Oeun Kimheng, 21, a university student, claimed the previous commune chief was inefficient.
“Services for providing documents were always late,” she said. “Any party is fine with me, but my decision to vote depends on my confidence and belief in a party that is capable of performing its duties.”
The former commune chief, Moul Virak, declined to comment.