UN Sells Plan to Rural Cambodia
Officials are organizing UN `road shows' to demonstrate services, promote elections
CHAM PEY, CAMBODIA
THE small central Cambodian village of Cham Pey encompasses all the factors that still divide this country more than a year after a peace accord was signed in Paris. The hull of an empty school marks the boundary between Khmer Rouge- and government-held territory.
The thought of holding elections here among a population traumatized by two decades of civil war and still hammered by frequent cease-fire violations may seem premature, local United Nations officials concede.
And talk of tough UN economic sanctions has given way to consideration of the UN's lending muscle to a narrower logging export ban passed by Cambodia's ruling Supreme National Council Sept. 23.
Few UN officials here think the measures being considered by the UN Security Council this week will have much impact on the Khmer Rouge's internal deliberations about whether or when to join in elections.
In places such as Cham Pey, which is about 15 miles east of Siem Reap, the provincial capital, the peace agreement and the UN presence have made little difference so far. The war continues - although at a lower level than during previous years - in skirmishes and armed robberies.
Despite the violence, the UN says the elections must go on - even without the participation of the rebel Khmer Rouge, which has refused to demobilize any of its soldiers, who commit most cease-fire violations.
To spread the message of what the UN is doing, officials of the UN's Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) are organizing "road shows" in which the various components of the UN's bureaucracy - military, civilian administration, mine removal, electoral, and human rights - travel out to remote towns.
So far UNTAC has reached half of Siem Reap Province's 14 districts. A little less than half of the province's 555,000 people are eligible to vote. Registration has just gotten under way and is expected to be completed by the end of the year, before elections are held in May.
But this is only the second time that a village controlled by the Khmer Rouge in this province has agreed to accept the UN - even for just a short visit.
The UN says it will not begin registration in Khmer Rouge areas, even if invited, until unlimited access is given UNTAC and all political parties, as the peace accord requires.
The Khmer Rouge control at least 20 percent of Siem Reap Province's territory, although their heavily forested strongholds are thinly populated.
"We have been encouraging the [Khmer Rouge] to report cease-fire violations committed by the other side," says US Army Lt. Col. J. F. Carter, who heads a team of military observers (UNMOs) working in this area. "We make an extra effort to get to them so that they don't feel outside the process."
Yet while there are encouraging openings on the ground, the Khmer Rouge still take potshots at UNTAC helicopters in the air. Potshots were blamed for forcing down a UN helicopter in Siem Reap Province this month.
The UN's road show provides a range of civic and medical services, including prosthetic experts to fit limbs for the numerous land mine victims.
The first Khmer Rouge village that consented to a UNTAC road show did so after an advance team brought back a local woman who had been treated for land mine injuries.
In Cham Pey, the road show is held in the unused school. Several hundred villagers gather from both sides of the divided town as the helicopter unloads the UNTAC contingent.
Most villagers say they had been informed doctors would be brought. Dozens of women with babies clinging to both arms crowd the makeshift clinic.
"For many of these people this is the first time they have seen a doctor," says one of the doctors from the Dutch-Belgian branch of the relief organization Doctors Without Borders.
When the first crush has thinned out, villagers settle down for presentations. More than half the audience are kids dazzled by their first view of video.
"Only about 10 percent of the people seem to understand what we are saying, even though we try to explain it in simple terms," a civilian administrator says.
Presentations - made first in English or French and translated into Khmer language - are replete with references to democracy 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. Those who understand will explain it to others later."
One of these is Mam Em, a 63-year-old farmer, who remembers voting in elections when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was still Cambodia's monarch. There was no secret ballot then, he recalls, but he has faith UN-sponsored election will be. He has no qualms saying he plans to vote for Prince Sihanouk's party.
"They understand [about elections]," says Mr. Mam, referring to his neighbors. "But they are afraid to say, `We have no rights.'"
Those more familiar with UNTAC clearly welcome it.
Fairly typical is the comment of the Pha Chma, a young mother of four who was widowed when her husband died of malaria after just three months as a government soldier. "When UNTAC comes I feel happy but when they leave there is fighting again."
The UN is nearly finished deploying mixed military and civilian groups in every provincial district. Electoral teams are fanning out from those bases to every reachable village and pagoda to encourage voter registration.
During the presentation, representatives from the military of each of the four factions are introduced. Each representative arrives in uniform; their presence is meant to make the peace accord seem concrete.
Some villagers say they like what they hear and see. "I came to learn about UNTAC and maybe after today we will really stop fighting," says Chun, a Khmer Rouge soldier. He says he has fought for the rebel group since he was 12.