Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Maybe They'll Know It When They See It Some Election Observers in Cambodia Lack Firsthand Experience with Democracy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Maybe They'll Know It When They See It Some Election Observers in Cambodia Lack Firsthand Experience with Democracy

Article excerpt

'It is my first experience with an election," says Tin Han.

After two days' training in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Mr. Han was packing to be shipped off to Kompong Chhnang, a town north of the capital where he'll be helping to ensure democratic procedures at the polls Sunday.

Han not only lacks experience for this assignment, he's not kidding when he says it will all be new to him. The affable press secretary from Burma's Embassy in Laos comes from a country where oppressive regimes are the rule, and democracy is not yet a part of the people's lives.

For better or worse, Han is an international election observer, the chief hope Cambodia's opposition politicians cling to for free and fair elections.

The roughly 500 international observers meant to check on Cambodia's election here are a hodgepodge of serious watchdogs and communist ideologues, zealous democrats and ordinary folks. "Foreign observers are definitely better than having no observers, but you wonder about people who come from governments even more repressive than Cambodia's," says Rich Garella, a spokesman for opposition politician Sam Rainsy.

A coalition government in Cambodia was shattered last July after a coup by strongman Hun Sen ousted his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. A 1993 election had been a $2 billion United Nations operation that blanketed the country with monitors and military peacekeepers.

This year, however, the election is mostly Cambodian-run, with a smattering of international observers who watch, record, and report back what they see in the polling places.

Politicians here rely on international observers because they don't trust their own. The election bureaucracy is rife with ruling- party sympathizers. A local news report revealed many of the 59,000 national observers have links to the military and to Hun Sen. "Cambodians have lost their trust in their rulers, their public authorities," says Lao Mong Hay, director for the Khmer Institute of Democracy, who works for a local election watchdog. …

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