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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Thais' observation effort runs smooth as silk

Thais' observation effort runs smooth as silk

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INTERNATIONAL WATCHDOG

A foreign observer keeps a close eye as polling station officials

in Pailin prepare a balloting statement to be sent to the former

Khmer Rouge municipality's Provincial Election Commission.

Dr Punlop Singhasenee, a 14-year veteran of Thailand's Interior Ministry, has monitored

many a Thai election. But arriving as a Joint International Observation Group (JIOG)

observer to Oudong district of Kampong Speu was something of a homecoming for him.

His ancestor General Singha, a childhood playmate of King Rama III, drove the Vietnamese

out of Cambodia 150 years ago, installed two Cambodian princes in a palace in Oudong

and reigned as regent for 15 years.

"After inspecting polling sites on my first day, I visited the ruins of the

palace," Punlop said as his JIOG pickup truck passed the mountaintop capital

governed by his ancestor. "Very impressive view up there."

His task on election day was to visit 10 polling stations in two communes of Oudong.

His JIOG partner, a Colombian who spoke no other language than Spanish, would be

of limited use.

At 6:30am, the pickup pulled up to the school at Krang Punleuy village, Vieng Chas

commune. The classroom serving as polling station was decorated with posters, prominent

among them a letter from King Sihanouk assuring his subjects that their vote would

be secret.

Other posters illustrated the voting form, polling station layout and procedures.

A cartoon series showed a thug threatening a voter with a gun and another offering

money. "Don't believe threats," concluded a cartoon official as he pointed

to a ballot box and booth. "Your vote is free and secret. Please vote to improve

your country."

In the classroom were assembled the six polling station officials and observers from

the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), the Coalition for Free and Fair

Elections (COFFEL) and the Neutral and Independent Committee for Free Elections in

Cambodia (NICFEC), plus representatives from the CPP, Funcinpec, Sam Rainsy and Son

Sann parties.

The station chief opened the ballot box and showed it around: empty. All materials

- voter lists, ballots, stamps, indelible ink- were ready.

At 7am, the first voter was admitted. A doorkeeper handed out numbered admission

tickets as more voters arrived. By 7:30, a crowd of 80 was jammed up to the door

and windows.

"They should have formed a line," observed Punlop. "But other than

that, no problem."

Through the rest of the morning, as Punlop bounced down pot-holed dirt roads to visit

eight more polling stations, the voting continued smoothly.

Most of the election officials were schoolteachers and their classroom discipline

was strict but friendly.

At one school, a loudspeaker was rigged up to announce admission numbers. At another,

car batteries supplied the juice for lightbulbs strung inside a pair of voting booths.

Every polling station had its complement of national observers and party representatives.

Funcinpec agents tended to be older people, Sam Rainsy younger, CPP middle-aged.

By 11am, JIOG observers were reporting in by radio.

"We're finished now with this commune," drawled an Australian voice. "Everything

is A-OK. Voting is 75-95% complete. We're very pleased with this commune. The voting

is very well organized."

"That seems to be the consensus of all the teams," replied a British radio

operator.

"This election is very good," agreed Punlop. "No irregularities. You

just have to be careful at closing time. That's when things happen, every place in

the world."

At 4pm, Punlop was at Monineath Sihanouk School at Vieng Chas commune headquarters

to observe the closing procedures. In the six polling stations of Vieng Chas commune,

95% of those registered had voted; in neighboring Preah Srae, the figure was 94.5%.

"I was afraid we couldn't finish the voting in one day. But we have," said

the polling station chief.

"Of course we all voted," added JIOG interpreter Orm Sovanavuth. "We've

been waiting for five years."

In front of the national and international observers and five party representatives,

the station chief locked and sealed the ballot box. The party representatives signed

a form stating that they had observed no irregularities.

The station chief then performed a slow and careful magician's act, making 14 items

disappear into a big blue bag along with the ballot box. The bag was then mounted

on a motorcycle and wheeled to commune headquarters. Two more boxes had just arrived

on a pony cart.

Cheab Sim, Commune Election Commission chief, explained that some 30 people - election

officials, party representatives, national observers - would be sleeping with the

ballot boxes. A generator had been installed to keep the lights on all night.

A European Union (EU) team, Irish and Spanish, were also on hand to observe the operation.

"I was very impressed with efficiency of the officials, and their thoroughness,"

the Irishwoman said.

"They were meticulous about rules and procedures. This is a clear indication

that the people want to play a part in the running of their country. I have great

hope for the future."

Cheab Sim stepped outside to catch the cool breeze coming from an approaching thundercloud.

"It was beautiful weather all day for the voting," he observed. "And

now here comes the rain, like a blessing."

Punlop arrived promptly at seven the next morning to watch the unlocking of the ballot

boxes. The EU observers, COMFREL, COFFEL and NICFEC were present too, going through

their checklists.

Around three tables, polling station staff counted ballots. When each group's tally

matched the number on their voter lists, they burst into applause.

Ponlap noticed, however, that the ballots from one station were folded differently

from the other two. "This way you could tell how one station voted," he

said.

At 8:30am, the ballots from three polling stations were mixed in a big blue bag and

redistributed into three ballot boxes. Officials chalked party numbers on the wooden

tables, with stone paperweights identically chalked.

The vote-counting ritual was solemn and unhurried. One official would take a ballot

from the box and pass it to a recording secretary who would examine it and pronounce:

"Bankar!" - Valid! A third official would hold up the ballot and announce

the party number that had been ticked.

On all three tables, the piles grew fast on numbers 18, 34, and 35 - Sam Rainsy,

Funcinpec and the CPP. Party agents and observers kept a running tally in their notebooks,

doing it the Cambodian way: boxes with a slash across them for each group of five.

By 11am, the count for the first three boxes was complete: 598 for CPP, 340 for Sam

Rainsy, 306 for Funcinpec. Thirteen ballots were declared invalid, either marked

more than once or not at all.

Punlop drove off to Preah Srae commune. Here the counting was going on in two classrooms

simultaneously. Ballots for minor parties were being piled on the floor, weighted

with stones.

Funcinpec won the first room running away: 629 votes to CPP's 281, with Sam Rainsy

lagging far behind with 182. But in the second room the CPP stomped Funcinpec flat:

892 to 322. Sam Rainsy barely registered at 87. Total tally for Preah Srae commune:

1,385 CPP, 951 Funcinpec, 269 Sam Rainsy, with 75 ballots invalid.

Back at Vieng Chas commune, counting was almost finished for the second trio of boxes.

This gave 449 votes to CPP, 357 to Sam Rainsy, 295 to Funcinpec. Total tally for

Vieng Chas: CPP 1,047, Sam Rainsy 697, Funcinpec 601.

As Punlop drove back to Phnom Penh, he was in a buoyant mood. His ASEAN colleagues,

he said, were in a similar frame of mind. They would be meeting that night to write

a statement.

Diplomat Nuttavudh Photisaro, chief of the nine-man Thai JIOG mission, provides an

historical overview. A fluent Khmer speaker, he was political counsellor at the Thai

Embassy in Phnom Penh from 1991 to 1995.

After making an extensive tour of polling stations in Phnom Penh, he observed: "The

Cambodian officials were happy to talk with us, smiling, excited about the elections.

They take care of the little details. They were afraid the voter turnout would be

less than 100%.

"In Thailand, if we get 50%, we think we're great. Here it's 10 out of 10. One

polling station official told me: 'This is the first time we're doing the election

by ourselves, so we want to do our best.'"

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