PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — CAMBODIANS have ended formal campaigning for next week's national elections, leaving voters enthusiastic over the opportunity to cast ballots for the first time in 21 years.
But people here are also worried about election-related violence and doubtful that a new government can bring lasting peace to this troubled nation.
The elections mark the United Nations' most ambitious peacemaking effort, and have been seen as a test of its effectiveness at resolving conflicts worldwide. If the peace effort succeeds, it will end the region's longest-running civil war, which has been a thorn in the side of regional stability. But the radical Khmer Rouge guerillas have vowed to sabotage the UN effort.
The six-week campaign period leading up to UN-monitored elections May 23-28 offered a variety of contrasts, perhaps fitting for a nation seeking a new beginning but still unable to consign its tragic past to history because of continued threats by the Khmer Rouge.
The Maoist organization, which presided over the deaths of at least 1 million people in the late 1970s, pulled out of the UN-brokered peace plan intended to end 13 years of civil war in Cambodia and has said it would disrupt the elections.
Attacks on opposition party workers and reports of continued intimidation of registered voters by government forces have differed sharply from the festive atmosphere of recent political rallies, where entertainment ranged from laser light shows to a rock band entertaining thousands gathered to cheer the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party. At some rallies, campaign workers have handed out T-shirts, overstuffed sandwiches, and medicines - special treats in Cambodia that can go a long way toward ensuring par ty loyalty.
As the parties made final pitches to voters before the midnight deadline to cease political activities, government forces and UN personnel increased security in the capital. Armored personnel carriers and pickup trucks crammed with soldiers toting machine guns and rocket launchers patrolled the streets. UN officials ordered all military headquarters staff to carry weapons while on duty and set a 10 p.m. curfew for off-duty military observers.
Cambodians took their own precautions. Some families left the capital to stay with relatives in the countryside. Others stocked up on food so they would not have to leave home if violence erupts.
A Cambodian-American who heads one of the 30 parties vying for 120 seats in a new legislature said he sent his wife back to the United States.
"It's going to be violent. I'm sure it will be," says Kim Kethavy, who sold his two gas stations in California to finance his party's campaign. He plans to fly to the US after the balloting to join his family, but says he'll come back to Cambodia.
Others in Phnom Penh have expressed similar concerns about attacks, but added that living with violence has been a fact of life in Cambodia, and threats will not stop them from voting.
"The election is very important to the Cambodian people, because it is part of the solution to find peace for Cambodia," said Kim Dora, who sells jewelry in the Central Market. But he predicted only partial peace would be possible: "There can never be total peace in Cambodia because of the remaining Khmer Rouge."
In markets, on campuses, and at curbside cafes, talk often turns to the upcoming elections. Many Cambodians say they have followed the campaign over radio and television, but refuse to say who they will vote for because the ballot is supposed to be secret.
CONVINCING Cambodians that their votes are private has not been easy, given a history of intrusive Communist rule and rumors spread by campaign workers to intimidate voters into supporting the ruling Cambodian People's Party. The Vietnamese installed the CPP in 1979 when it invaded to oust the Khmer Rouge. Some people were told the pens they vote with would be monitored by computer. Others heard the government had a satellite for voting-day surveillance.
Sorting through the campaign rumors, promises, and positions of the parties has overwhelmed many voters.
In addition to the CPP, parties expected to have strong returns include the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party led by former Prime Minister Son Sann and the United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) led by Prince Norodom Ranaridh, son of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The ruling CPP say it is the only party strong enough to counter a feared resurgence by the guerrilla group. FUNCINPEC has promoted national reconciliation under Sihanouk as a monarch. Son Sann's party would install a Buddhist government.
A professor of management at the Institute of Science and Economics in Phnom Penh said he is confident the UN forces will be able to prevent major disruptions by the Khmer Rouge so the legitimacy of the election results will not be called into question.
Hok Hour, who recently came to Phnom Penh to look for work from Kompong Cham province, which has large areas under Khmer Rouge control, says he has narrowed his choices to either the ruling party or FUNCINPEC, because he thinks they have a better chance at improving conditions.
But like others, he is not expecting rapid change. "Things cannot change soon enough for the older people. But maybe there will be better times and peace someday for my children."