Large Voter Turnout Bodes Well For Cambodians Tired of War
Khmer Rouge, now marginalized, poses threat to fragile gains
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
CAMBODIANS waited eagerly as results from elections began to filter in yesterday for the new government that will try to bring lasting peace to the war-scarred nation.
Prospects looked a bit brighter here after the United Nations moved swiftly to declare the elections free and fair, clearing the way for recognition by other countries and enhancing Cambodia's chances of securing foreign aid for development and military assistance to counter a feared resurgence by the radical Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
The Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who pulled out of the UN-brokered peace accord for Cambodia and vowed to sabotage the elections, now will be treated as insurgents if they continue fighting, instead of being regarded as a political faction competing alongside other factions for more power and influence.
Despite pre-election threats by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians demonstrated their desire to have their voices counted in shaping the country's future by going to the polls last week in surprisingly high numbers - 4.2 million of the country's 4.7 million registered voters turned out. Rebuke to Khmer Rouge
Yasushi Akushi, UN special representative in Cambodia, said Saturday that the 89 percent of the country's registered voters who cast ballots "did so without fear in an atmosphere of calm that was almost completely free of violence and intimidation." In an obvious reference to the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Akashi said the large turnout "delivered a stinging rebuke to the men of violence."
Nevertheless, some peacekeepers were wary of the guerrillas' silence: "I suspect they're going to do something again," said Maj. Roustan Saliakhov, a Russian officer serving with the UN peacekeeping force in the northern province of Seam Reap. "It has been alarmingly quiet."
The election was the centerpiece of the UN peace plan aimed at ending decades of turmoil in Cambodia and offered a key test to determine how deeply involved the UN is likely to be in helping to resolve internal conflicts elsewhere.
The ambitious $2 billion peace and reconstruction mission for Cambodia is the UN's largest such operation in history.
Piecemeal results available yesterday showed strong support for both the royalist opposition party, the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) and the party of the Vietnamese-installed government, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Eighteen other parties also competed.
Although the United Nations moved quickly to declare the elections fair, there were concerns that some parties might protest the vote if the results were not favorable to them. The CPP yesterday appeared ready to do just that.
Sok An, deputy party chief, said serious irregularities occurred during the voting and asked officials with the UN mission in Cambodia to stop releasing election results until the party's complaints were investigated.
He claimed that seals were broken on some ballot boxes, ink used to mark the hands of people who voted could be washed off, and some Cambodian poll workers were not impartial. The party also complained that it did not have access to the ballot boxes at night during the elections to ensure no one tampered with them.
International observers privately expressed concerns that the CPP leadership might react strongly if the party failed to gain control of the new assembly.
The party leadership could create chaos if it protested the election results by refusing to cooperate with the new government and disbanding security forces.
The United Nations pace plan had appeared on the verge of collapse before the election and still faces trouble because of the earlier failure to disarm the combatants. Run out
As the voting was winding down, Nem Lan stuffed clothes into a small bag, strapped some belongings to her bicycle and left home with her two young daughters after hearing of an attack by the Khmer Rouge in a nearby village in the tense northern province of Siem Reap.
She and about 340 other villagers laden with a few essentials and cherished possessions made their way slowly by bicycle along the highway, choosing the burden of relocation in stifling heat over feared attack at home by the Khmer Rouge.
Nem Lan said that about 100 of the 300 people living in her village of Komphen headed for the provincial capital of Siem Reap, about 10 miles to the east.
She said she had not been afraid to vote even though the Khmer Rouge had threatened to attack those who went to the polls.
She felt secure because of the presence of UN peacekeepers, but now she is scared again, she said. "After the election, maybe the Khmer Rouge will attack."
A taxi driver in Siem Reap, the site of a bold daylight raid by hundreds of Khmer Rouge in early May, expressed similar fears.
"I don't worry as long as UNTAC is here," said Bun Roeun, using the acronym of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia. "But if UNTAC withdraws, then I will worry."