The densely populated plains of Kompong Cham represent some of the most prized political
territory in Cambodia.
Its voters will elect nearly one in six of the members to Cambodia's Constituent
Assembly and a host of big name candidates are contesting seats in the area including
SOC Prime Minister Hun Sen, his education and trade ministers and two feuding sons
of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Chakrapong and Sirivudh.
But in a country where political significance often translates into violence, the
election campaign waged for Kompong Cham has resembled more of a mob war than an
exercise in democracy. Rivals for power have been killed, officials threatened and
the civilian population terrorized.
Theo Noel, the U.N.'s electoral chief for the province said the security situation
had deteriorated to such a point that there was a 50 percent chance the election
in Kompong Cham would have to be abandoned.
"We are reassessing the situation everyday but at the moment I would say it
is about fifty-fifty that the election will go ahead," he said.
The loss of Kompong Cham, which has 702,000 registered voters, would be a serious
blow to the legitimacy of the U.N.-organized elections, making the province a prime
target in the Khmer Rouge's campaign to discredit the U.N. operation in Cambodia.
U.N. officials monitoring Kompong Cham said that in the last two months the hard-line
guerrilla group has accelerated a build up of troops that began at the start of the
The Khmer Rouge are now estimated to have more than 2,000 men in the area and control
positions in 15 of the province's 16 districts, up from four last October. Recent
military gains have put them close enough to Kompong Cham town to launch artillery
strikes, a U.N. official said.
The Phnom Penh regime has responded by beefing up its existing forces with more soldiers
in the countryside barracks and deploying gray-shirted security personnel in the
towns. The SOC has also been busy arming local villagers and plans to have 100-man
militias operating in all of Kompong Cham's 170 communes by election day.
"Things are definitely beginning to heat up," said Rita Kongwa, the deputy
provincial electoral officer of Kompong Cham, adding that the danger from the Khmer
Rouge came not so much from their numerical strength as from their mobility.
The Khmer Rouge who face the prospect of international isolation and possible military
elimination if the SOC wins the May 23-28 election and have launched an undeclared
war on the poll process.
"In many places they have denied access, they have confiscated registrations
cards and told people not to vote or their life will be threatened," Noel said.
In the past two weeks, the Khmer Rouge have apparently escalated their anti-election
campaign to include U.N. personnel.
The guerrillas have been held responsible for the fatal shooting of a Colombian police
officer Apr. 30 and an ambush of an Indian army convoy on May 3 as it was patrolling
in Chamkar Leu district.
Five of the Indian soldiers were wounded when the convoy was hit by B-40 rockets
and small arms fire.
Noel said voting in the province would only proceed if there is no risk to the life
of his staff or fear of attack on the polling stations. He said the process was entering
the most dangerous period.
"We will know this week because if they are to disrupt the election they will
attack the polling sites and now they know where we are deployed. We have big banners
telling everybody where the polling sites are."
On May 6, Phnom Penh troops captured three Khmer Rouge-held villages in northwestern
Chamkar Leu district, an attack which many residents in the province believe signals
the onset of a State of Cambodia offensive to expel the Khmer Rouge from the eastern
province before the elections.
But a major military victory by the Phnom Penh forces would provide little comfort
to most of the U.N. staff whose main assignment is to provide a safe and politically
neutral environment for the elections.
SOC troops and party officials have been blamed for carrying out an intimidation
campaign that has left at least four rival party officials dead and the local population
U.N. officials said that Cambodian People's Party (CCP) officials have summoned voters
for meetings, taken their pictures and forced them to sign membership cards.
"They have been openly giving verbal threats to people," Noel said.
"They are saying a vote for FUNCINPEC is a vote for the Khmer Rouge. They also
said if you don't vote for us we will come back and kill you," Noel added.
The royalist FUNCINPEC party, whose main election platform is an unelaborated promise
to return the country to the "good old days" of founder Prince Norodom
Sihanouk, was the early favorite in the province and has borne the brunt of the attacks.
In one of the most brutal incidents, Hou Leang Bann, a FUNCINPEC accountant, was
called to a meeting at a CPP district party office on Mar. 3. His badly beaten body
was found six days later in a nearby well.
The killing prompted UNTAC officials to raid a string of CPP offices in the province,
an action that was branded a "gross violation of human rights and the Paris
agreements," by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
U.N. officials say the intimidation campaign carried out in Kompong Cham was so heavy-handed
that it is now impossible to predict which party will win the majority of seats.
"You would have to take them off the street, put them in a car and wind up the
windows before anybody is going to tell you who they would vote for," said Giles
Joly, a district electoral officer.
Rival political parties, however, say they believe the Phnom Penh government will
win the largest share of seats although they seem reluctant to say it is because
the party has done little more than employ traditional scare-mongering tactics.
"At first, FUNCINPEC was very popular, but CPP have run a very successful propaganda
campaign," said Ream Vibol Vanna, secretary for the Kompong Cham branch of the
Liberal Democratic Party.
"They said if you vote for FUNCINPEC the Khmer Rouge will come back and take
away your land. FUNCINPEC is strong on the memory but CPP is strong on the military,"
he said, echoing SOC's line that only it has the military strength to stop a return
of the Khmer Rouge.
Vanna acknowledged that a high level of election-related violence had occurred in
Kompong Cham but said his party had escaped "fairly lightly."
He said two of his party's offices were hit by rocket-propelled grenades. The secretary
blamed "unknown gunmen" for the attacks.
UNTAC officials have not been spared in the CPP campaign either. Noel told of an
incident in January in which members of the Cambo-dian People's Army forced four
UNTAC vehicles to stop along National Route 6 to watch as they pulled over several
passing vehi-cles and shot and killed five Cam-bodians.
In a U.N. newsletter published shortly after the attack, the provincial chief said:
"If they can kill five people in front of four UNTAC vehicles it shows they
don't care much about UNTAC."
The intimidation campaign has eased since the United Nations raid in mid- March but
Noel said troops sporadically shoot at or over U.N. cars and recently began questioning
the locally-hired staff.
"They told the local staff they don't like our propaganda because we were telling
people that their ballot would be secret. They said that they didn't like that kind
of propaganda. "
He said that while the population was terrified and no longer had much confidence
in UNTAC's ability to provide security, he believed they still had faith in the secret
ballot. This faith was rattled recently when UNTAC announced it would employ SOC
soldiers and police to provide security at polling sites.
"I think (Phnom Penh) realized that they went too hard and although they have
eased off now the people are very frightened and when [UNTAC] says that CPAF [Cambodian
People's Armed Forces] will secure the electoral process I don't think people can
distinguish between CPAF protecting the ballot and CPAF killing and terrorizing people,"
A further threat to the election comes from bandits, many of them unpaid CPAF solders
from the notoriously ill-disciplined 51st regiment, which guards the heavily used
Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh road.
On May 5 two taxis using that route were raked with machine-gun fire as they slowed
to cross a bridge. Six Cambodians were reportedly killed although some local residents
claim the death toll was as high as 13.
Since the Khmer New Year in mid-April, 13 of Noel's his 57 district electoral supervisors
(DESs) have quit because of threats to their lives or the deteriorating security
situation in the country.
"The DESs feel we have already given our heart and soul to the job but we are
not prepared to be martyrs for Cambodia," Joly said.
The threat from political violence and banditry not only affects the ability of the
U.N. officials to carry out the preparations for the election but also threatens
the validity of the elections, Noel said.
"If you are talking about risking the voting population, you cannot talk about
a free and fair election.
"Because of the security situation we are already reducing the election (in
Kompong Cham) by more than 100 polling sites so we are going from 310 to 216.
"We are already restricting the vote. Elderly citizens who can't travel long
distances, women who are bringing up children or running businesses, ill, the handicapped,
we are already denying access to vote for all these people.
"The people have told us if they have to choose between voting and their life
they will choose their life," he said.
Noel, who was with the United Nations when it organized the 1990 polls in Haiti,
said there was "no comparison security wise" between the two elections.
"Here they are under threat of their lives. In Haiti there was only a low level
of intimidation and they knew the U.N. was there and it was respected and although
the Macout was still there they went out to vote and in some cases openly."
"The Cambodians are scared but they definitely want the election, they definitely
want peace," Noel said.