With all the uproar about Georgia’s new voting legislation and other states considering enacting their own voter suppression rules I decided to share my experiences in Cambodia with their first democratic election following the 1990 Paris Peace Accords ending the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
Days of Reckoning
Dawn was barely breaking when I arrived at my provincial electoral office. I was a District Electoral Supervisor, DES, and a UN volunteer on leave from my university in Ohio. It was the first day of the election, and United Nation’s, UN, whole gambit in Cambodia had come down to this. There would be three days of voting before a two-day break in the five-day voting cycle. The UN wanted time to adjust if anything went badly during the first three days.
In the words of Meatloaf, I was “glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife.” I was down to one hundred two pounds, my fighting weight.
I ran an uphill marathon all morning. A Cambodian PO, short for Polling Officer, had come down with malaria; people forgot to take water to the polling sites, and fluorescent lights broke. Eventually, everyone was stationed and voters stood patiently in long lines in the intense heat and humidity. Cambodians would not be denied their election.
Other than the few polling stations set up in pagodas, most of them were located in schools. But the picture was always the same—long lines of people, young and old, waiting eagerly in the hot sun for their turn to cast their ballot. Dozens of rusty bicycles stood against trees or littered the ground. Even a few oxcarts and water buffalo were parked among the many motorcycles. The UN Civil Police and UN soldiers (in my province, Tunisians) checked the registration cards while our POs inked fingers, collected cards and settled any disputes. The International Election Observers, IPSO, sat in the shade if they could find any, gulped down bottles of clean water and, when they weren’t gossiping, kept an eye on the party agents.
By the end of the first day, fifty percent of registered voters the province, Poŭthĭsăt, including my district, Bakane, had cast their ballots, as well as thirty percent of Cambodia. The POs returned to the office. “No attacks, no landmines,” they cheered. “But Momma (what my local staff called me),” one PO reported unhappily, “some of the ballot boxes have broken seals.” The radio crackled just as they were giving me their news. The ballot boxes were being delivered to the Tunisian’s compound, where I needed to go to check the seals. Party agents would meet me there to verify that there had been no ballot tampering.
A staffer handed me a clipboard saying, “You’ll have to complete a broken lock report, and the party agents will have to sign it.” I stood in a hot fog of humidity, the big field lights attracting swarms of insects.
I took the clipboard. Ballots in tubs, made of flimsy plastic with thin wire locks, were stacked five deep in a big 8-wheeler truck parked in front of the barracks. In the damp and mud, my neck and shoulders covered with crickets and grasshoppers, I checked all of the locks in full view of the party agents. Flying insects attacked my eyes and midges crawled up my nose. Holding up five fingers, I reported, “Pram locks are broken.” The party agents shook their heads and sneaked peeks at each other, as if to assure themselves that no one opposed my count. In unison they all said ban, confirming the number.
I wrote with one hand and waved the other like a wild woman, trying to protect my face while finishing the report. When I felt something crawling down inside my shirt, I shook with spasms. Several of the Tunisian soldiers clustered around me, vainly trying to pick the bugs from my head and shoulders while I put new seals on the boxes. I was in a scene from The Temple of Doom.
The agents signed off and left the compound. I headed for home, in the dark, hardly slowing my vehicle through two Cambodian military barricades. Although my heart was still racing from the attack by an army of flying insects, I somehow managed to stay calm and play along with the soldiers’ usual charade about landmines on the road. After handing out cigarettes at each stop, I searched in my rearview mirror to make sure that no guns were aimed at my departing car. I didn’t want to tempt fate and wind up dead on a bridge. I wanted to go home.
The second day of voting saw a repeat of long lines and ended without incident, except for another broken lock on one of the ballot boxes. By then, the assistant UN provincial head of elections, had devised a system to replace the boxes immediately, so aut panyaha (no problem). I checked them off in front of party agents before they were loaded onto a truck and shipped to Phnom Penh for final counting. No swarming insects would ravage me again.
My car crawled back to my house in Poŭthĭsăt. I was tired; my head pounded and whacked, as if an African drummer were stuck inside it. Dinner was on the table. Without stopping, I walked toward the bedroom, telling Veata, my housekeeper, “Aut nambye tinai knei. No dinner tonight. I’m not hungry.”
Veata grasped my arm, pointed at the food that she had prepared for me and sat me down at the table. Then she pushed opened the shutters. The night air smelled faintly of jasmine, which mixed with the aroma of the dish—noodles with onions, cucumbers, yams and peanuts along with a plate of fresh mango. Surprised at her insistence, I picked at the food until she was satisfied that I had eaten enough.
Usually, Veata grudgingly left me a thermos of hot water in the kitchen so that I could fix instant coffee. One the third day of voting, however, she stood by my bed before dawn with a cup of coffee in one hand, gently shaking me awake with the other.
I picked up the IPSOs at an unholy early hour and delivered them to the Bakane office. From there, Civil Police escorts drove them to their polling stations, exactly as the provincial UN office had instructed. Then I sat in the office with the remaining Civil Police, discussing whether the relative calm of the past two days would continue. We were convinced that it would not.
“Echo Charley Bravo 1. Come to Metuk polling site; several dead and injured from an explosion.” By the time that I arrived, voting had come to a standstill and chaos reigned in the street. Victims lie crumpled in the road. Someone, likely a Khmer Rouge soldier, had fired a rocket into the market not far from where people were lined up to vote, killing six and injuring three.
My job was to keep the polling stations open, not play the role of a triage. The locals would have to comfort victims, transport the injured to a nearby clinic and take on the ghoulish task of removing the bodies and debris. I could only survey the carnage and hope that the explosion wasn’t a portent of events to come.
Calming down the two Tunisian IPSOs at the scene was a challenge in itself. They refused to stay, demanding that I return them to HQ immediately. Luckily, a couple of officers from the Tunisian battalion had arrived to secure the area and search for evidence because the UN wanted to know who had caused the havoc. Claiming that I needed a strong man to help me, I flattered one of them into promising to protect the IPSOs when the polls reopened. Satisfied that their Tunisian countrymen would keep them safe, even if I couldn’t, the IPSOs relented and voting resumed.
Before I left Metuk to return to my district office, the lines were even longer than before the attack. Cambodians would not be deterred.
I returned to HQ at the end of the day to a buzz of conversation. A polling station in another province had been attacked in the afternoon. There were explosions and the station was closed early, but details were sketchy at best. Our UN military advisor was reminding everyone in the room that, unlike Poŭthĭsăt, the province of Kampong Cham hadn’t moved its polling stations to the province’s main roads. Rather, polling stations were set up throughout the districts, some accessible only by boat because of the early rains. Earlier, I had convince my bosses to use a strategy I learned as a police officer in Atlanta—THOR, target hardening, opportunity reduction. We only had polling stations along the main road in the province. The people residing in our districts would have to travel miles through jungles, swamps and rice fields to vote.
The sun shone brightly on the final two days of voting in Poŭthĭsăt. Registration cards had been collected with only minor resistance. By the last day, ballots had been cast by ninety-eight percent of its voters and pretty close to that rate throughout Cambodia. Other provinces had suffered attacks but, for the most part, Cambodians had risked everything to vote. The UN had lucked out and would claim success. The turnout had exceeded all expectations, but the outcome—who had won—wouldn’t be known for several days, perhaps longer. The ballots that had been shipped to Phnom Penh daily were being tallied by hand.
With the election over and polls closed, the local staff would sleep at the polling stations in order to collect and return equipment to the district office the next morning. Wired from the overall success of the polling, I was ready to go home and pack for my imminent departure.
I was up at the crack of dawn, ready to go. After performing my last official act, which was getting the IPSOs on their bus for a two-day holiday at the beach, I returned to my house to finish packing my few belongings.
As I left Poŭthĭsăt and headed toward Phnom Penh to begin my long trip home to the States, I shouted out the window, “We’ve done it.” With my free hand, I pushed the call button on the radio and said to no one in particular, “Echo Charley Bravo 1, I’m out of here. So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
Legislators can make all the voting restrictions they want, but in the end, it is up to each of us to get to the polls and cast our ballots. The Cambodians did it, traveling on foot, ox-carts and bicycles through jungles and swamps despite cruel heat and even crueler Khmer Rouge guerillas. Surely, given the stakes to our democracy, we can too.