While the four signatory factions to the Paris peace accords (along with the new
cards in the shifting deck) continue to squabble, while cease-fire violations continue
to be logged by the dozens each week by passing week, while widespread violence and
intimidation continues to prevent the establishment of a "neutral political
environment," and while the imposition of sanctions against the Khmer Rouge
for refusing to cooperate with the peace process may pose even greater difficulties
for the UNTAC mission, Khmers of all walks of life have stated loudly and clearly
in an overwhelmingly unanimous voice that, come what may, they are ready to go to
the polls in 150 days.
Thus, behind bold newspaper headlines highlighting every new crack in the peace process
and the regular intense scrutiny of yesterday's tremor resulting from egregious cease-fire
violations such as the recent artillery duels which displaced 10,000 in Bavel, the
story of UNTAC's major success to date-the registration process-remains an unheralded,
albeit significant achievement.
More to the point -and more importantly-it is an historic triumph for and definitive
statement by the Khmer people who, despite the absence of even the remotest affiliation
with any kind of truly democratic electoral process in not-so-recent history, have
lined up by the millions to have the chance to cast their ballots in what they hope
will be a free and fair election this coming May.
The number of people who have now registered stands at roughly 4.4 million out of
an estimated 5.5 million eligible voter pool.
They've come on foot, teetered chock-a-block in cyclos, sped recklessly by motorcycles,
ambled in oxcarts and paddled by boats to over 800 UNTAC registration sites throughout
the country every day for the last three months.
Quietly and without much fanfare the UNTAC electoral teams, spearheaded by the hard
work of more than 450 U.N. Volunteers, have managed to reach almost every village
and distant corner of Cambodia with the UNTAC story.
The Khmers, to their credit, have responded in kind so that over 80 percent of the
country's eligible voters are now signed up and ready to cast their ballots.
Khmers may not be sure who they want to vote for but they've been told by the U.N.
that they don't have to tell, not now, not ever.
One thing Cambodians do know for certain (even if once UNTAC leaves it's likely there
will be all kinds of chits collected or distributed depending on who one "says"
he or she voted for) is that THEY WANT TO VOTE IN MAY.
At the very least, Cambodian political leaders of all stripes should take note of
this mandate by the people. And the message the voters have unmistakenly sent to
every political party is a simple one: Don't thwart the peace process, don't intimidate
us and don't give us this or that reason why elections can't be held. Just get out
of the way and let us decide for ourselves who should govern the country.
After all, that's what an election-especially the one to be held in five months-is
supposed to be all about. The four factions put their names to it in Paris, and that's
why the United Nations is spending over U.S. $2 billion of the rest of the world's
money so Cambodians can decide by and for themselves who they want to lead the country.
With nary a whimper from the people, the message is "Yes, we want to decide!"
Registration has proven with only a few doubts that Khmers agree with this idea.
Even if they weren't really given the choice in Paris, they have now wholeheartedly
endorsed the basic concept.
So, while recent notes on the road to elections could include a rehash of the hostage
crises up north or the continued tragic incidents involving threats and assassination
of political party members-or the accusations that are thrown back and forth on press
releases between "unelected" politicians or the long list of acts of violence
that are "still under investigation" by UNTAC-the news that really needs
to be highlighted is the fact that the great majority of Cambodia's voters now have
one of those light green, laminated UNTAC registration cards in their hands.
Khmers also feel quite strongly about the notion of using the cards this coming May.
To prevent them from doing so would be a grave political mistake, one which the people
should rightly say they are unwilling to forgive or forget.
A final note on the voter sign-up (or perhaps a better term would be the UNTAC-administered
"primary election"): While most of "the ballots" are in and the
results should be interpreted as a landslide victory in favor of free and fair elections,
voter registration has been extended one month until Jan. 31.
Publicly, this is to allow the U.N. time to offer the 60,000 or so refugees still
in Thailand the chance to sign up and, not-so-privately, to give the Khmer Rouge
leadership another 30 days to play ball by the U.N.'s rules (although more than a
handful of the DK's boys in the field-along with or pushed by their family members-have
already checked in to get their registration cards).