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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Y2K bug threatens commune elections

Y2K bug threatens commune elections

THE commune elections scheduled for November are unlikely to be held till March next

year, possibly later, because of computer problems associated with the Year 2000

bug (Y2K).

Computer expert and Under-secretary of State at the Council of Ministers, Pan Sorasak,

said that the computer system was in danger of collapsing and there were no quick

fixes that would get it running for the scheduled election date.

He said it would take at least a year to sort out.

"We've already run out of time," said Sosarak, who was in charge of the

NEC's computers for the 1998 polls.

"We need six months to upgrade [the National Election Committee's computer system]

and another six months to check the system.

"We can't do it. . . there's no time for troubleshooting."

Sosarak and the director of the National Election Computer Center (NECC), Chea Sok

Huor, said that they were concerned no action had been taken to sort out the problem

despite the Government having been notified of it last year.

"Look out there," Sosarak said gesturing toward the NECC's darkened interior.

"It's empty in there, there's no activity, but we should be working now to get

the system ready."

The Y2K bug is a problem associated with computers misreading the beginning of the

year 2000 as the beginning of the 1900s because computers only use the last two digits

to record the year in dates - 00 in this case.

However, Huor said they believe the bug could wreak havoc earlier than the turn of

the century.

"The Y2K problem could emerge anytime because inside the computer there may

be date [mechanisms] that are approaching or are already past 00," he said.

According to Sosarak and Huor, the bug could make it impossible to generate or cross

reference voter registration lists.

Sosarak warned: "If the [computer] system becomes corrupted, the computer doesn't

behave logically."

The computer's manufacturers - Sequent Computer System - notified the NEC

of the problem and offered to supply new software at no charge.

But Sequent spokesman Peter Farrell said that so far they have not been called upon.

AusAID, which oversaw the funding and expertise for making the NEC's central computer

system operational for the 1998 elections, has also been aware of the problem.

"We never pretended that [the NECC's computer system] was Y2K compliant,"

said AusAID representative Bill Costello.

"We advised them last year about the problem."

Costello says AusAID might help but they did not know what help the Government wanted

for the computer or the election in general.

"At this stage, the Cambodian government is at the very early stages of defining

what the Communal Elections are about...and how registry [of voters] is to be configured,"

he said.

"The Cambodian government should put a well-developed, complete plan of the

Communal Elections on the table and then approach donors for assistance."

National Election Committee Secretary-General Im Soursdei lamented that the government

was still a long way from doing this.

"Not only AusAID, but every donor wants to know whether the draft (election)

law is democratic or not," he said. "Everything depends of the draft law,

so [for now] the National Election Committee has to stand still."

Funds that could otherwise be freed to rectify the NECC's Y2K problem are apparently

likewise frozen in bureaucratic limbo.

"Even the budget I haven't prepared because I don't know what (electoral) system

will be used," he said.

"The budget and everything else depend on the [establishment of an electoral]

system."

Meanwhile Soursdei said that it would not be till the end of April that he would

be in a position to give an election date.

However, he was hopeful that they might be able to stick to the November deadline

even if it meant abandoning the computer system.

"We can use the traditional method [of registration and vote counting], using

eyes instead of a machine," he said.

However he added: "that creates more danger [that] in some places, not all,

people may cheat."

It is also highly unlikely there would be any foreign funding for an election which

would be so open to abuse.

Nor is it likely that the opposition parties would take part.

Costello was also optimistic that Y2K notwithstanding, the elections would go off

as scheduled.

"I didn't think we were going to go through with the last election. . . but

the Cambodians did it," he said.

But back in the cool, quiet, dust-free environment of the NEC's computer center neither

Pan Sorasak nor Chea Sok Huor showed any of Costello's confidence.

"We don't want to create scandal, we just want to alert people," Sorasak

said.

"We're so worried [about Y2K]...because we're the only ones [in the government]

who seem concerned about it."

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