Maybe They'll Know It When They See It

Some election observers in Cambodia lack firsthand experience with democracy.

'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.

The training for observers amounts to two eight-hour sessions reviewing the UN Observer Manual, a 130-page guide on reviewing elections. It offers a political and legal background on Cambodia, the rules and roles of observers, and a framework for how to take notes and report. Observers are not allowed to interfere with any proceedings, even if deemed improper.

Some observers are veterans of the 1993 election. For others, the two-day training is sort of a refresher course. The Philippines' eight-member delegation is from the National Movement for Free Elections, the country's top election watchdog. The team from the United States includes two Burmese nationals, although they are pro-democracy exiles. Another international observer is an expatriate Canadian restaurant owner in Phnom Penh.

Laos and Vietnam - Communist neighbors with one-party systems - sent a combined 15 observers. Then there's China, the Communist stalwarts who consistently jail young democrats at home. It will have eight observers at the polls. "This will be a very valuable experience for each of us," says Yang Houlang, a Chinese observer in Phnom Penh, who was plucked from China's Asia affairs department in its Foreign Ministry.

Jacques Carrio, who leads the UN team coordinating the international observers, says they don't spend any more time training those from nondemocratic nations than others. "That would be discrimination," Mr. Carrio says. They do pair off their observers so representatives from two nations work at each polling area. "It works as a check and balance," he adds. "This is a way to get close-to-impartial views."

China's Mr. Yang says he isn't at a disadvantage to observers from democratic countries. "I have been trained," he says.

Mr. Lao takes a selfless approach. "Perhaps we can educate them," he says. "After they come here, maybe they won't resist democratization in their own countries."

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