ANOTHER SATISFIED CUSTOMER
An amputee voter in Phnom Penh receives his registration card.
THE European Union is happy that more than 5.3 million Cambodians - 97% of all potential
voters - have registered for the July 26 polls that it is helping to pay for.
Cambodian NGOs charged with monitoring the registration process are however a bit
more pragmatic, pinpointing systematic abuses in the process.
But more worrying is the National Election Committee's (NEC) admission that although
it is investigating allegations of double, underage and illegal alien registrations,
it can't possibly take action against all lawbreakers.
If double registrees are caught "they will face the confiscation of their identification
card, lose their right to vote and possibly go to prison - but that is not our job,"
said NEC vice president Kassie Neou.
"There is nothing we can do [to catch them] ... We don't have the time to take
on other tasks."
A senior EU official said of the registration result: "It's higher than any
of us could have imagined four weeks ago.
"Everyone was saying that there wouldn't be the same enthusiasm as in 1993.
The NEC and the PECs (Provincial Election Commissions) have been given a boost of
confidence. The atmosphere is different now. The registration process showed the
determination of the Cambodian people to take part in their own governance."
"In terms of quantity, I'd say the registration process was very good, efficient,"
said Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL) executive director Lay Sovathara.
"[But] in terms of quality, not so good. I can't give a percentage of how many
illegal registrations there were. Overall, I'd give the registration process a 9
out of 10. I am hopeful that the electorate understand the voting process better
now than in 1993. NGOs have had five years to train people in democracy. I'm optimistic
that people will know whom they will vote for, if nobody intimidates them."
Kuol Panha, executive director of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL)
said: "I'd give the registration process a passing grade, not perfect. The total
process was okay, despite technical difficulties and mistakes. I'd give it a grade
of 5.5-6.5 - still room for improvement at the final exams of elections. But I'm
happy that there was not a big amount of violence. Our relations with many of the
PECs are good, cooperative, and improving with time."
Phnom Penh, Pailin, Ratanakiri, Sihanoukville and Preah Vihear provinces recorded
registrations of over 100% of the initial estimates.
The 15,746 Pailin registrations, for example, was 180% of estimates of the voter
"People in rural areas are coming back to places like Pailin to register,"
the EU official explained. "Any little center of population is going to attract
more people than the surrounding countryside. People registered where they wanted
to, not necessarily where they live. We also don't know how accurate the census figures
On June 15, NEC director Im Suoursdei announced the discovery of 20-30 multiple registrations.
As 77% of the voter registration cards have yet to be processed by the NEC Computer
Center, more will undoubtedly turn up in computer checks.
However, their statistical significance would appear dubious, observers say, given
the inking of voters' thumbs.
Sovathara of COFFREL said: "When I was an international observer at NAMFREL
for the Philippine elections, the ink used could be scrubbed off in 20 minutes. The
ink here would take 24 hours, making it impossible for flying voters."
Neou was also confident about the inking process. "They will be cheating on
the registration, but not the vote," he said.
The simplest scam the local watchdogs have found is the registration of those who
are not qualified to vote: minors under 18-years and Vietnamese aliens.
One Funcinpec official, asked by a foreign journalist how easy it was to get fake
ID papers, said: "I could get you one!" and then flashed a card he, as
a US resident, had acquired illegally for the 1998 elections.
COFFEL and COMFREL have both issued reports based on their eyewitness observations
of registration at thousands of polling stations in all provinces of Cambodia. Examples
from their reports follow:
- Lacking proper ID, underage Cambodians can be registered as voters if their age
is attested to by two reputable witnesses. Such witnesses invariably include village
and commune chiefs.
On May 31, in Sandan district of Kompong Thom province, the registrar asked a young
man: "How old are you?" "I am seventeen," was the reply. The
official wrote "18" on his registration card. When an observer asked why,
the registrar showed a letter from a local village chief which read: "This boy
is exactly 18 years old. You must register him." The registrar commented: "Don't
you see the letter from the village chief? I must register him."
In Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, Takeo, Prey Veng and Kampot provinces, the practice
is for village chiefs to issue letters that guarantee minors the right to register.
At one center in Kampot, ten minors were refused registration, but succeeded after
intervention by their village chief. According to COFFEL reports from Siem Riep and
Battambang, a village chief was waiting to intervene just outside most registration
- Non-citizens of Vietnamese origin have been targeted as supporters of the CPP.
Reports of the registration of Vietnamese who are unable to speak Khmer have come
from Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kandal, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Thom.
In Kiri Vong district of Takeo province, district police issued ID cards to illegal
Vietnamese immigrants for 150,000 riels apiece. Fifty Vietnamese were reported registered
at one polling station.
In Kandal, at Takmao Primary School, a policeman vouched for 13 Vietnamese aliens.
In Rakar Koung commune in Mouk Kampoul district "large numbers of Vietnamese
registered to vote on the strength of information supplied by a Mrs. Poung Chivket."
On May 25, at a registration center in Phnom Penh, 73 Vietnamese were registered
with family cards signed by two police officers. At the same registration station,
64 suspect Vietnamese were registered using family cards with improper official seals.
Cheap tricks, though are legion. CPP officials may take thumb-prints, record registration
serial numbers and make voters drink from water cups containing bullets. But can
they make good those threats to identify those who vote against them?
"The ballot is secret," states the EU official flatly. "Rural people
are not gullible or as afraid as people make out. They care about voting and understand
"The key is the secret ballot," agrees Sovathara. "There are all kinds
of tricks to make people afraid, but the point is that the vote is secret. no one
knows your vote. we have to explain this to the people: 'You can vote for whomever
But while the sanctity of the individual ballot is maintained, the new accounting
process of as few as three villages can, say critics, allow local chiefs to identify
villages that are opposition strongholds.
Voter registration figures
Total registered voters
% of potential voters