CHAM PEY, Siem Reap Province-This kilometer-and-a-half- long village symbolizes the
crippling political standoff that still divides this country more than a year after
the peace accords were signed in Paris-the hulk of an empty school marks the midway
boundary between the Khmer Rouge half of the village and the other half defended
by State of Cambodia troops.
To even think of holding elections here among a malaria-ridden population-traumatized
by two decades of civil war and still hammered by frequent cease-fire violations-may
seem premature, local UNTAC officials concede.
In fact, in places such as this the peace agreement and the U.N. presence have so
far made little difference-the war continues almost unabated, although it is mostly
a war of attrition, of skirmishes and armed robberies, rather than of the pitched
battles as in previous years.
In spite of this the U.N. says the elections must go on-even if it is without the
participation of the Khmer Rouge which has refused to demobilize any of its soldiers-and
who are suspected in a number of cease-fire violations.
To bring the message of what the U.N. is attempting in Cambodia, UNTAC officials
posted in each of the country's 21 provinces have organized "road shows"
in which the various components-military, civilian administration, demining, electoral
and human rights-travel out to smaller district towns to educate the locals.
So far UNTAC has reached half of Siem Reap province's 14 districts which have a combined
population of about 555,000. A little less than half of these are eligible to vote.
Registration is expected to be completed by the end of the year-or at least by the
Jan. 31 extended registration deadline-in anticipation of the May elections.
But this is only the second time that a village controlled by the Khmer Rouge in
this province has agreed to accept the U.N.-even if for just a short visit.
None, however, have said they will allow elections and the U.N. says it will not
begin registration in Khmer Rouge areas, even if invited, until unlimited access
is given UNTAC and all political parties, as is called for in the Paris accords.
The National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK, i.e. Khmer Rouge) control at least
20 percent of the province's territory though their heavily-forested strongholds
are thinly populated.
"We have been encouraging the NADK to report cease-fire violations committed
by the other side," says U.S. Army Lt. Colonel J.F. Carter who heads a team
of U.N. Military Observers (UNMOs). "We make an extra effort to get to them
so that they don't feel outside the process."
But while there are encouraging signs on the ground, the Khmer Rouge are still taking
pot-shots at UNTAC helicopters in the air, and impeding the mobility of the UNMOs
on the ground.
Cham Pey is the first village in the area controlled by the Khmer Rouge to consent
to hosting an UNTAC road show, but only after an UNTAC advance team returned a local
woman who had been evacuated for treatment of a foot blown off by a land mine.
In that village the road show was held in the unused school, with its symbolic promise
of a better future.
When the helicopter unloaded the road show team in a field near the school, several
hundred villagers gathered around, having been informed that doctors would be brought
in and medical examinations be given as well as medicines distributed.
Dozens of women, many with babies clinging on both arms, crowded the makeshift medical
clinic and dispensary to receive treatment for malaria, respiratory diseases, and
have their children vaccinated against diseases.
"For many of these people this is the first time they have seen a doctor,"
says one of the doctors from the relief organization Medicins Sans Frontieres.
A representative of Handicap International examined a couple of amputees that needed
fitting with prosthetics.
After the crush thinned out, the villagers settled down for a couple of hours of
UNTAC presentations. More than half of the audience were kids mesmerized by their
first viewing of a video.
"Only about 10 percent of the people seem to understand what we are trying to
do, even though we try to explain it in simple terms," says a civilian administrator.
Presentations-first made in English or French, before being translated into Khmer-are
replete with references to democratic and human rights.
"The idea of free elections, a secret ballot or even registration is still very
alien to them," says the administrator, who asked not to be identified. "Still,
it is very important we do this, so those that understand will explain it to others
One of these is Mam Em, a 63-year-old farmer, who remembers voting in elections decades
ago when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was Cambodia's monarch. There was no secret ballot
then, he recalls, but he has faith that the U.N.-sponsored election will be.
"They understand [about elections]," says Mam, referring to his neighbors.
"But they are afraid to say, 'We have no rights.'"
"When UNTAC comes I feel happy but when they leave there is fighting again,"
said Pha Chma, 28, a mother of four, who was widowed when her husband died of malaria
after just three months of service as an SOC soldier.
Some liked what they heard and saw at the road show.
"I came to learn about UNTAC and maybe after today we will really stop fighting,"
says a slender 20-year-old male named Chun. He has been a Khmer Rouge fighter since
he was 12.