Cambodia: To The Polls


Ian Wilson

Cambodia is preparing for another election round, this time to fill some 1600 posts at the local or rural commune level. Perhaps because the stakes are not as high as in the national polls in 1993 and 1998, there has been better cooperation between the ruling Cambodia Peopleís Party (CPP) and the main opposition behind FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy. On the other hand, the violent deaths of some 17 candidates and election monitors in the months leading up to the polls indicate that some interests take them very seriously indeed. European donor states, local womenís organisations, Cambodiaís impressive non-government structures and even the Army, on orders from Hun Sen, will be watching the polls carefully.

Those elected on 3 February are charged with a heavy responsibility to reinforce the emerging civil society that is springing up from decades of warfare. Although a peaceful poll will indicate considerable progress, many of the current social ills have very deep roots and will be hard to eradicate. War, foreign intervention with sophisticated weaponry, and a murderous civil conflict during the Pol Pot years have exacted a fearful toll, particularly among adult males. They have promptly exploited their market scarcity by dominating official positions, contracting multiple marriages and causing high levels of domestic violence. National literacy levels are the lowest in the region but here again a breakdown by gender finds 47.6 per cent of all males can read, whereas the figure for women is only 29.1 per cent. These and other social problems are carefully tabulated by the local Non-Government Organisations and by the womenís movement. It may be significant that three of the candidates murdered prior to polling and one of the dead monitors were women. Pervasive corruption, a large army which has not yet been fully demobilised, and frightening ease of access to weapons compound the threats to a civil society. Yet the sense of social and international obligation and responsibility has not been extinguished. Cambodia has offered to help Afghanistan in the work of mine clearance. After all, one Cambodian in every 250 of the population has lost one limb to land mines or the continuing hazard of unexploded ordnance.

A good result with no further violence would be welcome. Anything less should remind us of the deep seated trauma and dislocation that have been inflicted on a nation and a people who were trying to live in peace.

WATCHPOINT: The election results will show the strength of the opposition forces. Of more importance will be Hun Senís ability to incorporate them into effective governance.


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