Cambodians Vote In Droves Despite Threats of Violence
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
SCATTERED violence by Khmer Rouge guerrillas has disrupted balloting at some polling sites and killed at least one person May 24, but heavy voter turnout indicates Cambodia is headed for its first internationally accepted election in decades. The head of the United Nations mission here has said the election has been fair and scandal-free.
Voting began May 23 and will continue through May 28. In the opening days, Cambodians thronged to election stations under heavy security by UN forces. By the end of the first day, 3.3 million - 70 percent of those registered - had cast their ballots. Voters have included hundreds of members of the Khmer Rouge, despite their earlier threats to disrupt the polling process.
"I think we are now going to have a democracy, and this is something we want very much," said Mark Polrith, who works as a legal adviser at the Justice Ministry.
He refused to say which of the 20 parties vying for 120 seats in the new constituent assembly he supported. But he said he thought most Cambodians wanted a change after 14 years under the Communist government installed by Hanoi in 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded to oust the radical Khmer Rouge.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk called for the Khmer Rouge to end its attacks and attempts to thwart the voting, saying the elections will be meaningless if the nation continues to be ravaged by fighting. "The elections must ... not just implement democracy, but save Cambodia," he told thousands of people gathered outside the Royal Palace.
THE former Cambodian monarch is widely regarded as the only leader capable of pulling together the various factions to achieve national reconciliation. After distancing himself during the campaign, he returned to Cambodia on the eve of the elections and expressed support for the voting.
Officials with the 22,000-member UN force trying to implement a UN-brokered peace plan for Cambodia downplayed the violent incidents that marred the first two days of voting.
Electoral workers were barred from talking with journalists at polling sites, and only sketchy information was provided publicly on election-related violence.
Top UN officials expressed concern that attention on hostile incidents could raise questions about the election's credibility and further unravel the UN-brokered peace accord already damaged by failed attempts to disarm the combatants, political violence linked to government forces, and the Khmer Rouge boycott of elections.
The Khmer Rouge, which imposed brutal agrarian reforms during its authoritarian rule in the late 1970s that killed more than 1 million people, joined three other warring Cambodian factions in signing the peace accord in 1991. But the guerrilla group has since withdrawn from the settlement, saying it is setting up Cambodia for future domination by Vietnam.
The UN's stakes in Cambodia are high, with the mission expected to cost more than $2 billion. The UN operations in Cambodia represent the organization's most ambitious peacekeeping effort in its history.
Some of those who waited a day to vote said they had been concerned about possible violence, but decided to go to the polls after the first day of balloting concluded with only a few violent incidents reported.
The largest attack linked to the elections so far occurred May 23 in the southern province of Kampot.
UN officials reported an artillery shell fell near a polling site there early in the morning, causing election officials to close three stations in the area. About 100 Khmer Rouge guerrillas then stormed one of the polling sites, firing at a ballot box and taking control of the building for a short time, a UN official confirmed privately.
No injuries were reported. The attackers stole a vehicle and a radio before fleeing.