Despite Pouring rains and threats of intimidation or worse, Khmers by the thousands
lined up early in the morning at polling stations in Phnom Penh and around the country
May 23, waiting patiently for their turn to vote.
In Phnom Penh, imposing looking U.N. peacekeepers from Ghana stood guard at the entrance
to polling stations, machine guns at the ready as U.N. civilian police frisked voters
with hand held metal detectors for weapons as they entered.
The normally bustling streets of Phnom Penh were quiet as many people went to the
polls on May 23, the first day of voting. Some businesses were closed, and the normally
bustling New Market was quiet, many stalls empty. Boun Chey, a 28-year-old vendor
in the market, said she was going to go vote as soon as her sister returned from
the polls to take over her stall.
Over at Olympic stadium, lines stretched in all directions from the different voting
stations. "This is the first time I am voting, and nobody has threatened me,
"said Pen Vantha, 29, as she left Olympic stadium. "I voted for the party
that I trust."
Hoy Mean, 54, said "I learned about this [the parties running for seats in the
election] by listening to UNTAC [United Nations Transition Authority in Cambodia]
radio, and I know my choice when selecting a leader. I am not scared about who I
Such confident remarks were a pleasant surprise to observers, given the climate of
harassment and apprehension during the months of campaigning leading up to voting.
There were many reports of voters being threatened with the loss of their job, or
worse if they didn't vote for the ruling Cambodian People's Party, or conversely,
have their debts erased if they did.
Prince Ranariddh, president of the FUNCINPEC Party, was surrounded by supporters
and journalists as he arrived to vote at Olympic Stadium on Sunday morning. "I
have no doubt our party will win," he told the crowd. "The DK [Khmer Rouge]
must take responsibility for very serious consequences if they disturb the Cambodian
people or the electoral process. This is a historic moment for the Cambodian people,
to have democracy for the first time in more than 20 years," said the prince.
Cambodian People Party President Chea Sim and Buddhist Liberal Democracy Party President
Son Sann also voted at Olympic Stadium on the first morning of the voting.
Meanwhile, in front of the Royal Palace on Sunday morning, Prince Norodom Sihanouk
addressed thousands of marchers and supporters with the Dhamma Yietra peace march,
which had arrived the day before the polls opened. Telling the crowd that peace would
come to the Cambodian people through the free and fair elections, Sihanouk said,
"This election is the start of a new peaceful era in Cambodia."
Addressing a crowd colored by the saffron robes of monks, the prince said that Buddhism
prohibits violence or any other heavy-handed interference with the elections. Sihanouk
appealed to the Khmer Rouge and the other parties to abandon their hate and join
hands and unite in reconstructing the country, torn by conflict and civil war for
more than two decades. "This [election] is not only bringing democracy to Cambodia,
it will also save the Cambodian nation, "Sihanouk said.
In an otherwise smooth first day of voting, the only major complaint was voiced by
State of Cambodia Spokesman Khieu Kanharith, who said CPP agents had inspected 40
ballot boxes that had been damaged. "I will not accept this happening again,
Kanharith said, despite UNTAC security measures in transporting and guarding ballot
U.N. spokesman Eric Falt said at the close of the first day of voting that already
more than 1.5 million registered voters, roughly one-third of all registered voters,
had gone to the polls throughout the country. In Phnom Penh, approximately 150,000
people, or 35 percent of qualified voters had gone to the polls.
Waving registration cards and soaked to the bone from the early morning rain,
voters at Wat Dei Doh in Kompong Cham were literally trying to bust their way into
the polling station on the first day of the election.
"The worst problem we've had today was crowd control," said Rita Kongwa,
UNTAC'S deputy electoral officer for Cambodia's most populous province. "The
controllers haven't been doing their job. If that's the worst problem then it's probably
Lim Hann, 41, a villager from Phum Kampong Samnanh, watched the tightly packed crowd
trying to squeeze their way into the polling site. With a hopeless look on his face
he worried how he could vote when the Khmer Rouge had confiscated his registration
"I want to vote very much when I see the crowds. Can you help me?" Hann
asked the Post." I want to vote to have a just government."
Kampong Cham is Cambodia's most important province politically. With the largest
number of registered voters and 18 seats, the province has drawn close attention
from all major political parties.
Hun Sen ran for a seat in the Constituent Assembly there, as did Prince Norodom Chakrapong,
also on the CPP ticket, and Prince Sirivudh for Funcinpec.
State of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen came to Kampong Cham on the second day of
voting. He arrived quietly and without fanfare at the polling site, cast his ballot
and then engaged journalists.
"We are very confident," he said after casting his vote, "because
we have done everything for the purpose and survival of the people." When asked
if the CPP would turn over power if they lost in the elections, Hun Sen replied,
" I am one of the great sportsman of the democratic game."
Would the CPP win a majority? The SOC prime minister replied, "Of course, I
don't want to sell the bearskin before killing it."
Prince Chakrapong commented after voting, "I am very optimistic that we will
win." A majority? "Sure!" the prince replied.
The security situation in the province was relatively quiet on the first two days
of voting. On May 24 six polling stations were closed down and three re-opened.
"There's been a lot of intimidation in the province," commented one electoral
official. "It's widely known. And some people can't get out to vote because
they've been threatened with death."
"There's an IPSO up north who closed a site," said one of the IndiBatt
press handlers. "We have no idea why, but it's his decision to re-open it."
Due to security and logistical considerations, polling in the province was split:
half of the polling sites open from the 23rd to the 25th and the other half open
from the 26th to the 28th. With IndiBatt stretched to the limit the U.N. was concerned
that security would be inadequate province-wide with all polling stations open at
So many people had come out to vote on Sunday, the first day of voting, that on
Monday morning the polls around Prey Veng province were almost deserted but for the
poll workers and observers. It was so quiet, in fact that polling officials were
worried that when U.N. Special Representative Yasushi Akashi visited the central
voting site in Prey Veng town at midday to observe voting he might find a deserted
polling station. At the mention of the possibility of being on television, however,
a group of voters obligingly waited outside the voting station for Mr. Akashi's arrival
before entering to vote.
Mr. Akashi, noting the quiet order of the polling station, commented that "many
days, many hours of work have come to success."
Asked what he had seen at other polling sites he had visited, Akashi answered confidently,
"Everything has gone very well so far, and I think we can surmount any problems
that may arise."
At one station, consisting of two small huts down a dusty track a few kilometers
outside of town, 1,400 out of 1,600 registered voters had already vote by Monday
morning, according to international Polling station observer (IPSO) Ginette Fluxhench
of France she said the morning had been very quiet with a slow steady trickle of
voters coming to the polls, many fewer than the day before.
At another station further away on Route 1, IPSO Mathilde Keuten of Germany said
she was pleasantly surprised at how quiet everything was.
"Before the voting began, we heard many rumors that there were exactly 24 Khmer
Rouge soldiers in the area, and everyone was very nervous, On the first morning of
voting, we were dressed in flak jackets and helmets and driven to our sites in convoy.
"It was a very scary feeling, everyone was very nervous-we didn't know what
was going to happen," he claimed.
As it was, other than very heavy rains on Sunday morning, the only problem was seals
on some of the ballot boxes that broke during transit to safe storage for the night,
after having been inspected and sealed in the presence of party representatives.
Other than that, the two days had passed quietly, with a 96 percent voter turnout
by the end of the second day of polling. Of 3,800 voters, 3,100 had come on the first
day. As Keuten pointed out, Prey Veng Province was very well served by voting stations.
The nearest polls were only three to six kilometers away.
As thunder crashed and rain poured down, a handful of villagers came to the polling
office at Phum Thanal in Siem Reap province to cast their ballot. Some had walked
as far as six kilometers just to have a say in the country's future. Others had come
by bicycle or motorbike. But despite earlier fears of violence and intimidation,
all seemed happy at the opportunity to choose their future government.
"I am very happy that this election is free and fair," said one rice farmer
who had come from the small village of Angcha, four kilometers from Siem Reap. "The
people here are not afraid."
In the nearby polling area opposite the market place, voters even volunteered the
name of the parties they had voted for, although journalists had been banned from
asking such sensitive questions.
U.N. electoral observers and military officials claimed that the election had so
far been a resounding success, with more than 70 percent of registered voters going
to the polls in the first three of a total six days of voting. They also said that
while 60 percent of Siem Reap province is still controlled by the Khmer Rouge, 85
percent of the province's populations remain in areas controlled by government soldiers.
"The result has turned out better than anyone could have imagined," said
David Roberts, an international poll station observer (IPSO) stationed in Siem Reap.
"Maybe UNTAC over-exaggerated the problems."
Others point out that despite the May 3 attack on Siem Reap town, in which nine Khmer
Rouge soldiers were reportedly killed, the people have not only put aside their fears
about voting, but have actually welcomed it.
More than 86 polling stations are dotted around the province and despite some complaints
by the Cambodian People's Party, election officials have to date reported no evidence
But for all the hope inspired by the elections, the situation in Siem Reap remains
tense, with fear of the Khmer Rouge still strong amongst the people and even the
slightest rumor of attack sending the town into paroxysms of fear.
In nearby Tonle Sap, scene of an earlier massacre of Vietnamese settlers, villagers
cluster nervously among the rickety wooden buildings that front the lake, while the
police station sits abandoned. Only a lone government soldier was in evidence and
he advised journalists to leave because Khmer Rouge was all around.
Even in Phum Thanal polling station near Siem Reap, as the last votes filtered in
at 4:00 in the afternoon the sound of shelling could be heard in the distance, a
poignant reminder of the uncertainties that still plague this troubled country.
With reporting by Andrea Hamilton, Mang Channo, Ben Davies and Michael Hayes.