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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A Khmer St. Crispin's Day

A Khmer St. Crispin's Day

For the media, Cambodia's moment of electoral truth began in Phnom Penh and expected

trouble spots. But the country's heart lies elsewhere-in its myriad rural communes.

It is here, where the Khmer Rouge have tried to win support, that the experiment

in democracy will have to take root; moreover, UNTAC's legacy will be seen here,

if at all, once the U.N. operation is wound down.

The polling station near the hamlet of Ang Taphras in the district of Kong Pisey

on the edge of Kompong Speu province is as good a test sample as any. Getting there

was like watching a film-clip of the Camel car rally. Proceed to Kompong Speu and

thereafter cut across the province on a by-road between Routes 4 and 3. On the way

note but ignore a large mine field festooned with red warning markers. At the market

of Kong Pisey ask advice. Correct directions should lead to an imposing solitary

pagoda pockmarked with bullet holes. Sandbags in doorways hide bored Bulgarian soldiers

charged with protecting the adjoining pre-fabs containing the CIVPOL and Electoral

District HQ plus sleeping accommodation for 14 IPSOs. An unmarked turn-off five kilometers

further on leads to a narrow dirt road already suffering from the recent rains. Bouncing

past watermelon fields and flooded paddies reflecting phalanxes of sugar palms, occasional

thatched houses, fat pigs, gaunt cows and women with babies slung like pistol holsters

on their hips-the on-running scene is so idyllic that one cannot help wonder whence

cometh the Khmer's terrible cruelty and violence and indifference towards each other.

After some eight kilometers, giggling melon pickers at a lean-to point to an even

narrower dyke road bearing left. The rally image grows stronger. The visible surface

is rutted from bullock cartwheels. The journey ends at the local school set in a

lush green field against a backdrop of green-grey foothills where the Khmer Rouge

are encamped. Two long wooden structures house the six Khmer electoral teams resplendent

in their blue U.N.T-shirts. A smart Nigerian CIVPOL, a casually dressed interpreter,

and a slim female English IPSO make up the complement. A Bulgarian soldier represents

security, whose main contribution, when not sleeping, is to provide light relief

while having himself photographed with all and sundry.

After the excitement of the first day, when villagers massed like football crowds

awaiting the opening of the gates, it was more of the same for the remaining days,

only with diminishing numbers, until 79 percent of the electorate had voted. Certain

impressions stood out. People dressed in their best, calm and smiling then chattering

like magpies once they had gone through the ritual of card verification, UV finger

check and marking their ballot. Many had walked up to six kilometers in the grey

and drizzle and then baking sun to the polling station. Brief conversations confirmed

their unstoppable determination to vote.

As time passed it was clear that every one was having a ball, whether electoral teams

helping those who seemed lost, passive onlooking party officers, or those who had

done their bit and stood watching to see how their friends coped with the strange

procedure.

Little vignettes made the occasion memorable. Party officials admitted that everything

was fair and above-board; but grumbled about being hoist with their own petard. A

case in point: many voters had been told to place a tick in the top left hand corner,

(for CPP) but, as many turned round the ballot paper inadvertently, crosses ended

up in what was the bottom right hand corner (a bonus for the Khmer National Congress

Party!).

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