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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmers Signed Up to Vote Against All Odds

Khmers Signed Up to Vote Against All Odds

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

efforts)."

"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

eligible voters.

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

five months.

"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

the elections."

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