​Tragedy Throws Polls into Question | Phnom Penh Post

Tragedy Throws Polls into Question


Publication date
23 April 1993 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Kevin Barrington

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The execution of two United Nations electoral workers in Kompong Thom Apr. 15 may

have come as tragic shock to peacekeeping forces in Cambodia but unfortunately, it

did not come as a complete surprise to the fellow workers in the militarily volatile


"The atmosphere right up to the killing, as many DESs (District Electoral Supervisors)

will say, was an atmosphere that something terrible was going to happen," the

former Sala Visay based DES David Costanza said.

Costanza's words were echoed by Dutch colleague, Marcus Jense. He had been based

in Sandan which he said had previously been quiet and "really beautiful."

And then law and order started to slowly disappear.

"It was getting tense, increasingly tense. I didn't feel safe, I knew the DK

were just 1,000 meters away, they could easily shell our house. And there was more

and more shooting near the house, mostly drunken CPAF soldiers. And then there were

threats of mines from people who didn't get jobs [with the U.N. for the elections]."

The cold-blooded execution of Japanese UNV Atsuhito Nakata and his Cambodian interpreter

brought to the surface frustrations about the U.N.'s failure to provide adequate

protection that the UNVs had been harboring for months, especially with the increasingly

deteriorating security situation.

"We have being saying for months that the situation was not okay, that it was

becoming more tense. And still we had to fight to try and get security," Jense


Costanza, who is planning to leave and go back to the States, gave a more concrete

example of the UNVs security problems.

"On Tuesday (April 13) we had our usual meeting. And after the meeting the two

DESs in Baray said they wanted to leave the area and go to Phnom Penh. But they were

told at the provincial level and by the Indonesians not to worry, that Baray was

perfectly safe. Well, they decided to take matters into their own hands and left.

The night they left, the electoral office was shot up by people who came looking

for the two DESs. The interpreter and the local staff hid in the ricefield behind

the office, scared to death," he said.

Like Costanza, Jense and many of the others stationed in Kompong Thom have decided

to go home rather than go back to their districts. None of them could be called cowards

by any stretch of the imagination. Their job entailed more than its fair share of

occupational hazards. But recently the hazards had reached such a stage as to prevent

them from pursuing their occupation.

"We have complained before. But we were never serious about leaving the district.

Maybe we were a little crazy but that's how firmly committed most of us are to free

and fair elections. I don't know if Akashi or Austin (head of the electoral component)

were aware of the conditions we worked under. In Kompong Thom, it's likethere's an

electoral component deep inside a military operation. I suppose it's a microcosm

of what is happening in the rest of Cambodia but at a much more condensed level,"

Costanza said.

The UNVs sent a letter to the UNV Deputy Executive Coordinator's office in Geneva

outlining their demands for various security and logistical measures which needed

to be implemented immediately. Some of these measures-like an efficient evacuation

plan-were supposed to have been drawn up months ago but have been bogged down in

beurocracy, UNVs complained. There were a number of other demands calling for such

security measures as the building of bunkers outside their offices and for increased

protection to be provided by the Indonesian battalion and the civilian police.

The military and the police, however, have been targets of intense UNV criticism.

This criticism was accentuated by the failure of either force to respond to Nakata's

distress call on the radio-it was a fellow UNV who arrived to find his Japanese co-worker

lying dead, face down in the dirt, with his interpreter bleeding profusely from a

wound which would prove fatal.

Many of the electoral workers accuse the Indonesians of being so reluctant to jeopardise

their"good working relationship" with the Khmer Rouge that they refuse

to accompany the UNVs to any areas that might meet with the radical faction's disapproval.

Others speculated that the soldiers were firstly agents of Jakarta's foreign policy

and secondly United Nations peacekeepers. "The military component and the electoral

component in the districts are often at loggerheads, sometimes worse, sometimes there

is no working relationship at all," one UNV noted.

Although there were signs of improvement and some noteworthy exceptions, CivPol were

accused of being reluctant to go anywhere if it wasn't to pick up their pay cheques.

"If they go ahead and arm Civ Pol, I'm out of here, I'm going home. Those guys

are bad enough as it is," a UNV from Siem Reap stated, although he too admitted

that they were beginning to shape up a bit.

Some UNVs blamed UNTAC for initiating Civ Pol programs that jeopardized the electoral

effort. They cited Civ Pol training of the local State of Cambodia police as an example.

"Okay so they're (Civ Pol) supposed to work closely with the police of the existing

administrative structures. But when the locals see the police in an UNTAC car, they

don't know or think that UNTAC is training the administrative structure's police.

They think that they cannot trust CivPol. The idea is fine, it's just how it is worked


"This is where I blame UNTAC because they don't listen to us. We said 'don't

do this'. Then they tell us the idea behind the action as if we were schoolchildren,"

he said.

Given the ambivalent attitudes towards the U.N. police and military, it's hardly

surprising that many of the UNVs remained sceptical about whether, even if they got

the increased security measures, they would prove effective. And effective or otherwise,

some felt that if they were to return to their villages, the presence of a platoon

of heavily armed soldiers would undermine the validity of their message.

"In my idea it is even too late for that. But given that there may be some DESs

who will go back and be put in that position, I think it really destroys the message

of free and fair elections," Costanza said. His fellow worker Jense put it more

succinctly, "I just don't believe you can talk to the villagers about democratic

elections with a bullet proof jacket on."

Nakata's murder was the last straw for many of the UNVs. It dispelled in one fatal

blow the last illusions some of them cherished, that they could actually help stage

a truly meaningful election.

"It seems for many of us the Kompong Thom operation is just finished. To continue

on is suicidal and in no-one's best interests, certainly not the Cambodians,"

Costanza said.

Emphasizing the suicidal aspect, one UNV vehemently dismissed speculations that bandits

may have been responsible for the fatal attack. "Atsu had a money belt around

him when they found him with thousands of dollars. They were very efficient how they

killed him. It was very quick and they got out very quick. It was not banditry,"

he said.

Costanza gave some credence to this view when he stated there was a possibility that

a UNV was deliberately targeted. To use Akashi's word, he said, the Khmer Rouge were

desperate to stop the elections.

"There are many ways they can do this and one easy way is to install a chaotic

fear in UNTAC. But if this is a strategy, and it could be, to target a DES for example

and to see the reaction from UNTAC. I mean look, they killed one DES, or someone

did, and now UNTAC has stated at the highest levels that they will probably cut off

most of Kompong Thom from the elections, half of Preah Vihear, some of Siem Reap

and some of Battambang. What happens when they kill the next DES in Kompong Cham

or Koh Kong for example. It would be a disaster. And my deep fear is that there will

be a number two." he said.

The killings have also had a disastrous effect on the potential voters in his district.

Recently there had been a radical transformation in the villagers attitude to the

DESs. The villagers have been refusing to allow the UNVs put up electoral information

posters in Costanza's' district and in many other districts too. They have even refused

to take pamphlets on the secrecy of the ballot into their houses for fear of repercussions

from the Khmer Rouge. The guerrillas have been telling people for weeks not to get

involved with the elections.. And they have been telling the villagers that they

will attack the polling sites, Costanza said.

But so far, he said, it has been psychological intimidation the Khmer Rouge haven't

been backing up their threats.

"But I'm sure the killing of the DES and his interpreter just really, really

scares the heck out of those villagers because if they can get at UNTAC, think how

easy it is to get at your regular person and local staff," Costanza said.

A number of the UNVs from the trouble-plagued province of Kompong Thom felt that

the current question should not be whether the elections can be pulled off but whether

the climate is right to hold the polls.

Akashi, at a meeting with the DESs, alluded to elections elsewhere in the world where

voter turn-out is often as low as 40 percent. He seemed to be implying that the elections

would still be legitimate if a sizeable percentage managed to turn out to vote, some

of the listeners thought. But a number of the UNVs pointed out the obvious fact that

voters in the West choose not to vote of their own free will. This would not be the

case here, where, in certain areas, many people will be psychologically intimidated

or physically prevented from voting. Therefore, these UNVs said, they no longer wish

to risk their lives for an election which they claim has no integrity.

Using one of Akashi's metaphors about sowing the seeds of democracy, Marcus Jense

presented their case."When we started the soil was not perfect. But with fertilizer

it was possible to grow something. Then during the process the soil became poisoned

and I don't think the seeds could grow. Maybe some, maybe a few around the edges.

But there will be no harvest. And the whole point of sowing seeds is that you reap

more than you throw out in the first place." Jense, who will leave the country

shortly, said many of those planning to leave did acknowledge that it would mean

giving in to the Khmer Rouge.

A poll taken at a recent meeting of UNVs showed that the vast majority of UNVs were

in favour of postponing the elections. But this does not appear realistic. U.N. Secretary-General

Boutros Boutros-Ghali emphasized, during his visit here, that there are financial

constraints and many other pressing demands being made on the U.N. elsewhere in the

world. So the question remains whether to go ahead with the polls now. And it seems

there is an ideological divide amongst the UNVs.

Despite signs of an imminent increase in military activity, Bert Hoake, a UNV from

Siem Reap said DESs were still progressing with their electoral education campaign

in his area. They were getting angry responses to one of the new themes they had

worked into the mini-plays they stage for the villagers.

The new theme was that there were groups intent on stealing the election from the

people. Hoake said his villagers would understand if he had to come escorted by a

group of U.N. military. "I think the people realize that we are at risk,"

he said.

The people in the cities should vote and that should account for about 50 percent

of the population, Hoake said. And then in dangerous areas, he felt that if even

a handful of voters defied the thieves and the intimidators and the bullies, they

deserved an election. "As long as there are people willing to take the risk

and vote, I think that we should go ahead and give them an election," he said.

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