ROVIENG-All the roads leading into this district capital in a remote corner of Preah
Vihear province are mined, which means that the only safe way in or out for the U.N.
electoral staff manning the registration site here is by helicopter. And helicopters
that do come to Rovieng descend from 9,000 feet in tight spirals, with pilots sitting
on bullet proof Kevlar seat cushions to protect them from any "unfriendly fire."
"The situation is very tense," said Waisale Soata, the Fijian district
electoral supervisor in Rovieng. "We are completely surrounded by the Khmer
Rouge, but we have to show confidence, we have to show these people that we are strong."
Waisale Soata is one of 47 foreigners working for the United Nations Transitional
Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) currently based in Rovieng, which includes one other
U.N. Volunteer, three U.N. Military Observers (UNMOs), six civilian police and 36
members of the Pakistani battalion.
Soata has been here for two months and has been registering Khmers by the hundreds,
every day since Dec. 12 when the voter sign up process officially started in a district
that is as isolated as they come in Cambodia.
"Initially we had a good turnout, more than we expected. Sometimes we had to
turn people away since it was getting dark and sometimes we even worked on Sundays,"
Soata added. "When we set up our mobile video system to explain the election
process we had about 700 people show up to watch it. Most of them had never seen
a television before."
Many of the Cambodians coming to the Rovieng registration site live in areas controlled
by the Khmer Rouge. Of the 12 communes in the district, the Khmer Rouge control seven,
with five districts under State of Cambodia (SOC) administration. Some people walked
more than 25 kilometers just to have the chance to participate in elections expected
to be held this May
"Whenever they come, we give them brochures, but they say 'No, we can't take
these because when we go through Khmer Rouge checkpoints they will tear them up and
look for our registration cards'," said Soata. He estimates that more than 2,000
people have come to the district capital from DK zones to sign up.
"People hide the cards in their clothes or they leave them with relatives in
town," Soata said. "They are coming just to register and then they walk
home. The commune chiefs have been passing the message to the people."
Because Rovieng district is the most populous in this isolated province, there are
two registration teams present, both of them classified as "mobile." Conditions
permitting, UNTAC has sent the teams out to outlying communes to give as many people
as possible the opportunity to register.
"We had a problem in Rundos commune," said Soata. "The Khmer Rouge
came in and set up a temporary camp, so we were advised by CivPol to abandon (our
"When we go to Khmer Rouge zones we have to behave," said one of the local
Cambodian women working as an UNTAC registrar. "Some people are afraid to come
to register and sometimes I am afraid too."
As of Jan. 16, 6,896 people had registered in the district out of an estimated 10,366
Yim Somaly, former president of the Women's Association in Preah Vihear and a now
retired member of the Cambodian People's Party says that most people learned about
registration on the radio. "They tune it in and wait until the UNTAC program
comes on," she said.
"The people are tired of war, they want peace," said Somaly. "They
think that if the power is in Sihanouk's hands they will be very happy. When asked
why, she said, "Because my experience is that during Sihanouk regime nothing
was lost. It was lost when Vietnamese troops came and worse after they withdrew."
An elderly teacher at the local high school agrees with this assessment. "The
majority of the people still love Sihanouk and they still have confidence in him,"
he noted. "There is a contrast between my generation and the younger one. The
parents are still trying to explain the difference between Sihanouk's time and now
to the younger generation."
The UNMOs in town are responsible for liaising with the Khmer Rouge in Rovieng district.
"We've had four meetings with the Khmer Rouge," said one of the UNMOs in
Rovieng. "The last one went badly and they shot at our tires to try and prevent
us from leaving."
"CPAF (Cambodian People's Armed Forces) is not helping. The DK says 'These are
our boundaries and if they are respected we will let our people cross (to register)
but CPAF doesn't do it' so the Khmer Rouge are balking at cooperating," he added
before jumping in a jeep to go investigate a mine explosion that killed three CPAF
soldiers south of town.
Preah Vihear: Cut off from Cambodia
T'beng Meanchey, the provincial capital of Preah Vihear, is about 50 kilometers north
of Rovieng. With the recent redeployment of UNTAC battalions, the Pakistani battalion
is now headquartered there and helicopters of all sizes can be seen spiraling in
and out of the landing strip.
"This has really been a forgotten province," said Suante Renstrom, a Swede
and UNTAC's provincial electoral officer for Preah Vihear. "It's totally cut
off from the rest of Cambodia. We have no electricity and very rough conditions in
a general sense. Everything has to come in by helicopter."
According to Renstrom, the Khmer Rouge control about half of the province geographically
and 20 percent of its population.
"We've registered all the areas that we can," said Renstrom. "So far
nothing really serious has happened and in a way that's strange when you see what's
happened in Stung Treng and other places."
"There's been daily shelling in Kulen, but somehow we've managed to register
80 percent of the people there," he noted.
"We've had a lot of talks with the Khmer Rouge," Renstrom said. "We
try to assess the limits of their control and whether they will accept us. In some
areas we've been told its 'ok' to go by helicopter but not by roads."
With the registration period coming to a close, Renstrom said, "We have a couple
of weeks and what's not done by then won't be done. We don't want to force ourselves
into Khmer Rouge areas."
Voter registration ends on Jan. 31. To date it is the one major success in the UNTAC
Peace Plan that has been fraught with difficulties, primarily a result of the Khmer
Rouge's unwillingness to cooperate with the Phase II disarmament process and UNTAC's
inability to establish a neutral political environment throughout the country.
Over 4.6 million Khmers have signed up to vote, a process that has gone on quietly
and without much fanfare all over the country for the last four months.
"The Cambodian people themselves came forward to register," said Reginald
Austin, UNTAC's electoral component chief. In spite of the various explanations given
for the massive turnout-including speculation that some people just wanted to have
their picture taken for the first time-Austin believes that "we were able to
communicate the importance of registering to the Cambodian people and they were able
to understand its meaning. I would like to believe that they did it because they
wanted to vote."
Austin also applauded the work of the over 4,000 UNTAC- hired Khmer registrars who
"were on the front lines of the registration process."
"They did their job with real quality," Austin noted. "This proves
that Cambodians are no better or no worse than anyone else in the world."
Given the experience with using Cambodians in the registration process, UNTAC has
decided to upgrade their role in the election itself. It has been decided that during
the expected May polling, Cambodians will serve as "presiding officers"
performing statutory functions as defined by the electoral law such as issuing ballots
and checking registration cards.
"We assumed that presiding officers had to be international staff," Austin
said. "But we've been better served than we thought we were going to be. Cambodians
have earned the right as professionals to be presiding officers."
Austin is cautiously optimistic about the next four months. "The country is
full of guns," he notes, "and we've been rejected by the DK and never properly
accepted by the other side."
"SOC has cooperated on the military side, but there's never been a proper granting
of political space," he added, referring to the widespread intimidation of new
political parties and political assassinations that have taken place over the last
"We cannot be over optimistic," Austin said. "We cannot extrapolate
the (current) degree of safety into the much more controversial process of an election
itself. Registration is a cause for optimism but has also indicated areas of concern."
With the projected employment by UNTAC of over 50,000 additional Khmers to conduct
the election, Austin is concerned that there will be a much larger potential exposure
of Cambodians to threats or acts of violence. This is especially so since two Khmer
women working for UNTAC were killed in Siem Reap in early January; a first, and an
attack that many believe was a direct attempt to intimidate and further thwart the
UNTAC peace process.
With reference to the number of people from Khmer Rouge zones who have registered,
Austin said, "We know a number have come to register, some thousands, including
DK soldiers and in some cases their commanders. He added, "At the end of the
day (the DK) was able to tolerate (registration) and I hope this will continue through