Serving as Sully District supervisor since 1992, Michael Frey knows a thing or two about local government. And he recently traveled to Cambodia to share his knowledge with people there.
"There's no tradition of democracy, or the infrastructure for it, such as people who run elections or up-to-date voter rolls," he said. "What we take for granted, none of that exists there."
Frey went to Cambodia under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracies, created by former President Ronald Reagan in 1983 to promote democracy around the world. It provides assistance in running elections and promoting voter registration, plus trains and aids newly elected democratic governments.
"There's a Democratic and Republican program under it," said Frey. "The Republican program is called International Republican Institute (IRI), and that's who sponsored me."
The organization has been in Cambodia since its first local elections in 2002. IRI has a pilot program to work with its local government, called the Commune, and each elected Commune Council governs a commune of 5,000 to 25,000 people — similar to a small county.
"Their Commune Council program has been underway since last fall, and they wanted someone with local-government experience to come and share that with them," said Frey. "They wanted to know about decentralization and what local governments do."
For example, he said, they wanted to learn how to put on a town meeting, solicit input from constituents, set community priorities and develop a budget. But currently, there's a status-quo government there, but no new national government to adopt local-government policies. Cambodia became independent from France in the early 1950s, and its present constitutional government dates from 1993.
"The Cambodian People's Party is the last vestige of the Communist Party there," explained Frey. "But they are slowly moving in the direction of democracy and are trying to form a coalition." In the meanwhile, though, he said, "There are local governments with no real rules and budgets."
HOWEVER, HE did his best to enlighten them. He left the U.S. on May 21 and returned, June 1. That included four days travel time and a 14-hour layover in London because fog delayed his flight from Chicago to Tokyo, causing him to have to wait 14 hours between his arrival in London and departing flight to Bangkok.
"But I saw Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Piccadilly Circus, so it was fun," said Frey. "I'd never been there." On the way back, he spent two days in Bangkok, journeying down a river by boat and seeing some of the pagodas and temples.
On Sunday evening, May 23, about 6 p.m., he arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. It's in the south central part of the country, on the Mekong River. The next day, he met with the Commune Council program director.
"There are two Americans with IRI there; everyone else is a Cambodian national," said Frey. "We worked with four communes — chosen because all four have representation on the council of all three major parties there. The local elections were not for individuals; they were for a party — which chose its council representatives based on its proportional vote."
"There are 1,621 Commune Councils in Cambodia, each with five to 11 members," he said. "The IRI hopes to expand to working with 40 councils, next year." But working conditions there are nothing like those in America. "They have no clerks," he said. "And none of the councils have an office. One was in a barn with no sanitation, water or electricity."
Frey said parts of Phnom Penh are the same way. "I never expected that," he said. But he continued working, visiting a different council, each day. One was in Phnom Penh, and three were in the province of Kandul, which was much more rural. He saw the people's problems, firsthand, including their constant struggle to simply survive.
"Some of their projects were raising up roads because floods would cut off the roads and isolate the villages for a month," he said. "Most of the roads are dirt, 6-8 feet wide, and the primary mode of transportation is scooter or small motorcycle." But even worse, said Frey, "They say the odds of a child living past age 5 are 50 percent because of health conditions and lack of food."
Monday through Thursday, he visited different provinces. Then on Friday, he and IRI staff put on a seminar for all four councils in a modern hotel. "Many of the council members had never been in an air-conditioned hotel or had a buffet," he said. "Housing ranges from one-room, tin shacks to 3- 4-bedroom homes made out of stucco. In many areas, the nicer ones don't have bathrooms because there's no sanitary sewer."
FREY DISCUSSED the issues the council members faced — including how to plan without having any money and how to get people involved. "They had a lot of questions about how and why we do things," he said. But one difference between America and Cambodia stunned them.
"I told them we have very low voter-turnout, and it's something we battle constantly — and they were shocked," said Frey. "Literally, people [there] are dying for the chance to vote for greater political freedom and to implement democratic reforms."
When they asked him why American voters don't vote more than they do, he told them that, "oftentimes, we take it for granted because we've known nothing but [that privilege]."
But Frey added that "it was tough for us in the beginning, and they needed to compare themselves to where we were, a couple hundred years ago. I told them that, at first, only white male landowners could vote. I told them democracy is not an end — it's a constant evolution."
In Cambodia, he said, "The concept of people coming together to tell their local government what they want them to do is alien. Instead, local governments there exist to tell people what the national government has ordered them to do. This is what they're trying to change. It's not just the processes that have to be changed — it's the whole mindset."
Frey said the other thing strongly affecting everyone in Cambodia are the memories of the Khmer Rouge rule — the Cambodian Communists who ran the country from 1975-79. "In four years, in a country of nearly 11 million people, they killed 2 million — so people are still scared to speak up," he said. "It's going to take at least a generation before the people who were affected by it are gone."
He now has a better understanding of the difficulties Cambodians face and somewhat awed "that they're even attempting to face them because their challenges are so huge."
"But you see what they go through," said Frey. "Two of the councilmen were over 80 and many were illiterate — but there they were, trying to improve the standards of their country and make life a little easier for their commune residents. And when you see that, you think, 'How can it not work?'"
He said there was no anti-American sentiment there and, overall, "they were impressed and very appreciative that somebody came halfway around the world to talk to them." When he told them what Fairfax County supervisors do, he said, "Several asked how 10 people could represent a million. I told them we're good."