A foreign observer keeps a close eye as polling station officials
in Pailin prepare a balloting statement to be sent to the former
Khmer Rouge municipality's Provincial Election Commission.
Dr Punlop Singhasenee, a 14-year veteran of Thailand's Interior Ministry, has monitored
many a Thai election. But arriving as a Joint International Observation Group (JIOG)
observer to Oudong district of Kampong Speu was something of a homecoming for him.
His ancestor General Singha, a childhood playmate of King Rama III, drove the Vietnamese
out of Cambodia 150 years ago, installed two Cambodian princes in a palace in Oudong
and reigned as regent for 15 years.
"After inspecting polling sites on my first day, I visited the ruins of the
palace," Punlop said as his JIOG pickup truck passed the mountaintop capital
governed by his ancestor. "Very impressive view up there."
His task on election day was to visit 10 polling stations in two communes of Oudong.
His JIOG partner, a Colombian who spoke no other language than Spanish, would be
of limited use.
At 6:30am, the pickup pulled up to the school at Krang Punleuy village, Vieng Chas
commune. The classroom serving as polling station was decorated with posters, prominent
among them a letter from King Sihanouk assuring his subjects that their vote would
Other posters illustrated the voting form, polling station layout and procedures.
A cartoon series showed a thug threatening a voter with a gun and another offering
money. "Don't believe threats," concluded a cartoon official as he pointed
to a ballot box and booth. "Your vote is free and secret. Please vote to improve
In the classroom were assembled the six polling station officials and observers from
the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), the Coalition for Free and Fair
Elections (COFFEL) and the Neutral and Independent Committee for Free Elections in
Cambodia (NICFEC), plus representatives from the CPP, Funcinpec, Sam Rainsy and Son
The station chief opened the ballot box and showed it around: empty. All materials
- voter lists, ballots, stamps, indelible ink- were ready.
At 7am, the first voter was admitted. A doorkeeper handed out numbered admission
tickets as more voters arrived. By 7:30, a crowd of 80 was jammed up to the door
"They should have formed a line," observed Punlop. "But other than
that, no problem."
Through the rest of the morning, as Punlop bounced down pot-holed dirt roads to visit
eight more polling stations, the voting continued smoothly.
Most of the election officials were schoolteachers and their classroom discipline
was strict but friendly.
At one school, a loudspeaker was rigged up to announce admission numbers. At another,
car batteries supplied the juice for lightbulbs strung inside a pair of voting booths.
Every polling station had its complement of national observers and party representatives.
Funcinpec agents tended to be older people, Sam Rainsy younger, CPP middle-aged.
By 11am, JIOG observers were reporting in by radio.
"We're finished now with this commune," drawled an Australian voice. "Everything
is A-OK. Voting is 75-95% complete. We're very pleased with this commune. The voting
is very well organized."
"That seems to be the consensus of all the teams," replied a British radio
"This election is very good," agreed Punlop. "No irregularities. You
just have to be careful at closing time. That's when things happen, every place in
At 4pm, Punlop was at Monineath Sihanouk School at Vieng Chas commune headquarters
to observe the closing procedures. In the six polling stations of Vieng Chas commune,
95% of those registered had voted; in neighboring Preah Srae, the figure was 94.5%.
"I was afraid we couldn't finish the voting in one day. But we have," said
the polling station chief.
"Of course we all voted," added JIOG interpreter Orm Sovanavuth. "We've
been waiting for five years."
In front of the national and international observers and five party representatives,
the station chief locked and sealed the ballot box. The party representatives signed
a form stating that they had observed no irregularities.
The station chief then performed a slow and careful magician's act, making 14 items
disappear into a big blue bag along with the ballot box. The bag was then mounted
on a motorcycle and wheeled to commune headquarters. Two more boxes had just arrived
on a pony cart.
Cheab Sim, Commune Election Commission chief, explained that some 30 people - election
officials, party representatives, national observers - would be sleeping with the
ballot boxes. A generator had been installed to keep the lights on all night.
A European Union (EU) team, Irish and Spanish, were also on hand to observe the operation.
"I was very impressed with efficiency of the officials, and their thoroughness,"
the Irishwoman said.
"They were meticulous about rules and procedures. This is a clear indication
that the people want to play a part in the running of their country. I have great
hope for the future."
Cheab Sim stepped outside to catch the cool breeze coming from an approaching thundercloud.
"It was beautiful weather all day for the voting," he observed. "And
now here comes the rain, like a blessing."
Punlop arrived promptly at seven the next morning to watch the unlocking of the ballot
boxes. The EU observers, COMFREL, COFFEL and NICFEC were present too, going through
Around three tables, polling station staff counted ballots. When each group's tally
matched the number on their voter lists, they burst into applause.
Ponlap noticed, however, that the ballots from one station were folded differently
from the other two. "This way you could tell how one station voted," he
At 8:30am, the ballots from three polling stations were mixed in a big blue bag and
redistributed into three ballot boxes. Officials chalked party numbers on the wooden
tables, with stone paperweights identically chalked.
The vote-counting ritual was solemn and unhurried. One official would take a ballot
from the box and pass it to a recording secretary who would examine it and pronounce:
"Bankar!" - Valid! A third official would hold up the ballot and announce
the party number that had been ticked.
On all three tables, the piles grew fast on numbers 18, 34, and 35 - Sam Rainsy,
Funcinpec and the CPP. Party agents and observers kept a running tally in their notebooks,
doing it the Cambodian way: boxes with a slash across them for each group of five.
By 11am, the count for the first three boxes was complete: 598 for CPP, 340 for Sam
Rainsy, 306 for Funcinpec. Thirteen ballots were declared invalid, either marked
more than once or not at all.
Punlop drove off to Preah Srae commune. Here the counting was going on in two classrooms
simultaneously. Ballots for minor parties were being piled on the floor, weighted
Funcinpec won the first room running away: 629 votes to CPP's 281, with Sam Rainsy
lagging far behind with 182. But in the second room the CPP stomped Funcinpec flat:
892 to 322. Sam Rainsy barely registered at 87. Total tally for Preah Srae commune:
1,385 CPP, 951 Funcinpec, 269 Sam Rainsy, with 75 ballots invalid.
Back at Vieng Chas commune, counting was almost finished for the second trio of boxes.
This gave 449 votes to CPP, 357 to Sam Rainsy, 295 to Funcinpec. Total tally for
Vieng Chas: CPP 1,047, Sam Rainsy 697, Funcinpec 601.
As Punlop drove back to Phnom Penh, he was in a buoyant mood. His ASEAN colleagues,
he said, were in a similar frame of mind. They would be meeting that night to write
Diplomat Nuttavudh Photisaro, chief of the nine-man Thai JIOG mission, provides an
historical overview. A fluent Khmer speaker, he was political counsellor at the Thai
Embassy in Phnom Penh from 1991 to 1995.
After making an extensive tour of polling stations in Phnom Penh, he observed: "The
Cambodian officials were happy to talk with us, smiling, excited about the elections.
They take care of the little details. They were afraid the voter turnout would be
less than 100%.
"In Thailand, if we get 50%, we think we're great. Here it's 10 out of 10. One
polling station official told me: 'This is the first time we're doing the election
by ourselves, so we want to do our best.'"