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Mobile polls open up-country

Mobile polls open up-country

Mong Russey, Battambang

At dawn on May 24 the two vehicle convoy bristling with guns made its way east from

the Malaysian battalion camp in Mong Russei district to the village of Angkrang,

situated in one of the most isolated areas of the countryside on the main guerrilla

highway.

Within hours it had been joined by two Blackhawk assault helicopters, the most powerful

in the U.N armory, piled high with ballot papers and ammunition.

Whilst U.N soldiers with grenade launchers fanned out over the surrounding rice fields,

voting papers padlocked in metal boxes were carried to the local wat which had been

chosen as the polling station for this far flung district.

From his battalion headquarters, Col. Mohamad Arshad Raji, Sector 8 commander and

chief of the long serving Malaysian contingent was taking no chances. "Angkrang

was chosen as one of the last polling areas due to serious cease-fire violations

and heavy movement of Khmer Rouge soldiers in the area," he said. "Since

the beginning of May, the situation has been very volatile."

Throughout polling, the tranquil landscape had been broken by heavy shelling which

had led to the closure of several voting sites in the vicinity including the small

village of Daun Tri, four km to the west. The shelling followed the May 5 attack

on the Battambang train in which more than 30 people were killed, and 100 injured.

Heavy troop movements of Khmer Rouge had also been reported with units moving from

Pailin, less than 30 km away to the town of Chrouy via Angkrang.

But the events did little to put off voters, some of whom had come from as far as

10 km away. By 8a.m. queues of people clutching their registration forms had already

formed neat lines outside the polling booth, whilst farmers naked to the waist herded

their water buffalo. One woman had to be carried in because she could not walk. Others

forded the flooded rice fields in order to vote.

"Every one has come here because they want peace and they want democracy,"

said one woman who had trekked all the way from the town of Pre. Other villagers

appeared more confused by the multitude of different political parties on offer and

ticked three boxes rather than one. Some even checked the U.N symbol.

A few meters away, U.N soldiers in flak jackets and helmets guarded the polling site

whilst government troops secured the dirt track that provided the only access to

the village. A few cattle grazed unawares inside the roped-off polling area.

"I expected the people to be afraid," said Major Wannemacher, a U.N military

observer from Austria, "But they are all coming to vote. They want change."

Some 20 km away in Okriet, scene of further cease-fire violations, turnout at the

mobile voting unit was also high. In deed, in Mong Russei district alone, voting

has reached 94 percent of total registered voters, one of the highest turnouts in

Cambodia. That compares with an earlier U.N estimate of just 70 percent for the district.

Some observers are predicting that with tendered ballots still to come, the figure

could reach 100 percent.

"It is the first big victory for UNTAC," said First Lieutenant Michael

of the Malay battalion.

But as the armed Blackhawk helicopters finally took off from the village of Angkrang

carrying the numbered voting boxes back to Battambang, locals were already talking

of the next round of shelling and wondering when democracy and peace might finally

come.

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