Amputee soldier at the Preah Ketomealia military hospital in Phnom Penh.
THESE broken men sweating in their beds and covered with flies have sacrificed more
than most for Cambodia. Now they feel doubly insulted and angry at finding themselves
Most of the damaged soldiers at Preah Ketomealia military hospital in Phnom Penh
cannot vote in Election '98 because they couldn't get to a registration site.
Some soldiers described how they heaved themselves into some of the few rickety wheelchairs
belonging to the hospital and tried pushing themselves to the nearest registration
station at Wat Phnom. Others got their wives to push them.
Some couldn't maneuver their chairs or didn't have the strength to get that far.
When the few who could made it to the station, it closed in their faces. They argued
with the registration staff but still weren't allowed their cards.
"The government uses us to fight but when we lose our arms and legs, they are
quiet," said Un Phat, his stumped leg still healing from a mine blast in Koh
Kong last December. "I feel sorry because I cannot vote for the man I like.
I so much want to know who will win and who will lose this time."
"Just to give us something suitable to eat would be enough," the 35-year-old
special parachute commando said. "Now we eat like dogs and we are worse than
a dog in someone's house in Phnom Penh."
The National Election Committee (NEC) discussed sending mobile registration teams
into hospitals but decided it didn't have the money to pay for them.
The NEC surveyed patients at one unnamed hospital "but they told us 'we are
sick so we don't care about the vote'," said NEC member Prom Nean Vichet.
Most patients were from the provinces anyway, he said, so if they recovered and were
discharged home from hospital they would probably have found it difficult to return
to Phnom Penh to vote.
"We put a registration center close to [Phnom Penh's military hospital] so it
would be easier for disabled soldiers to come by wheelchair," Vichet said. He
added that soldiers who were seriously wounded would take months to recover anyway
"so the NEC expected they wouldn't be able to vote".
Among those spoken to by the Post, only one soldier, Pol Chantha, had been registered.
There may have been others but not very many, according to one hospital official.
Pol Chantha's spine was broken late last year when the car in which he was traveling
hit a mine in Kampong Speu province.
He heard about registration from the portable radio sitting by his head. His wife
pushed him to the registration center. He wanted to vote, though he would "dare
not to say" who would win.
"It depends on the party which will respect the election," he said, adding
that whichever one loses "will give power to the other one".
There are 996 wounded or diseased soldiers at the hospital now, plus 260 children
and more than 300 wives who spend the night in the compound outside or in the wards.
The hospital budgets 2,000 riel (50 cents) a day for the men's food. Medical supplies
are very poor.
Division 1 soldier Hanna Sophal, 38, lost three comrades along with his own right
leg during a skirmish with the Khmer Rouge at Mountain 200 near Anlong Veng.
"I wanted to register but could not because my wound still hurts," he said.
He added that he is happy to see an election in Cambodia again because "it will
end the bloodshed of Khmer killing Khmer".
However, he had no idea how the election could change his own life.
One group of soldiers slowly grew more angry explaining their frustration at being
denied the chance to participate the electioral process. They asked for a single
cigarette to smoke between them.
One of the soldiers said the prospects of a rosier future for Cambodia depended on
whether the incoming government was "kind".
"Then I will be happy," he said. "If [the next government] is mean
we will still be poor.
"But the election story is not my story," he said, explaining that he did
not register for the election because he simply did not want to. "That's the
story of other people, not me. I am not keen to hear who wins and whose loses. I
helped them already.
"I already gave one of my legs to help them."