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Disenfranchised soldiers: no vote for the maimed

Disenfranchised soldiers: no vote for the maimed

amputee.gif
amputee.gif

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

disenfranchised.

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."

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