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Elections Back Home a Time for Pause for Cambodians in US

For some Cambodians in the United States, commune elections like those to be held next month are a time to consider the state of democracy in their home country.

Activists among these expatriates told VOA in recent days they hoped democracy would be pushed further as Cambodians go to the poles April 1, but many expressed fears that it may not.

The optimists say the process of election helps build a democratic Cambodia, even if it doesn't always directly benefit the people.

"If the election goes without threat of killing and intimidation, it's good for the Cambodian people," said Vibol Tan, of the Cambodian Americans for Human Rights and Democracy, a group based in Virginia. "But the candidates usually never keep their promises [and], instead of helping the people, help the wealthy and the powerful."

Mong Heng, a member of the group, told VOA that voting helps only if political parties are all allowed to participate without influence from the ruling party.

"The means of campaigning have to be fair," he said.

Equal broadcasting time has been promised each of Cambodia's 12 registered political parties, and, starting Saturday, each will be given time on national television to broadcast its particular platform. Critics, however, say the ruling Cambodian People's Party already receives an undue amount of television and radio attention, as for all the other weeks of the year, CPP officials are shown in various provinces, breaking ground or giving speeches.

For the opposition, this creates a problem of imbalance.

For Cambodian voters, many of whom are uneducated, it creates confusion, said Koy Chhoeurn, the former Minnesota president of the now dissolved Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party.

The time period for campaigning is very short, he said.

"Why is the time so short?" he asked. "Because the government is afraid."

When people have more time to understand the process, they learn more, he said, especially when the opposition has more time to say more things, to let the people know what the government does.

In the United States, he said, a road construction project will include a survey of the people who might be affected. In Cambodia, no such survey is undertaken. If the opposition were given more time, they might highlight such a thing, he said.

Leaders in government don't really want people to understand that process, he said.

Still, he said, with each passing election, the people learn the power of a vote.

"People learn something during the process," he said.

That's a benefit for people, he said, "but [voters] have to give up their short-term interests and really think about the future," like taking rice and karmas from politicians in exchange for votes.

Sharon Young, whose Cambodian Children Organization works with youth in Virginia and sends money to support voting education groups in Cambodia, echoed those thoughts.

"If you know the value of your vote, you give it to the people who really work for the interests of the country and of the people," she said. "If you see someone not working for these interests, you don't give them your vote."

Oeurn Sarath, president of Sangkum Khmer Niyum Party, said he was optimistic about this vote in the commune election.

Cambodians are becoming more accustomed to the process, so this time will be even better, he said. He supports commune election candidates for his party from San Francisco, and told VOA he would try to bring some American qualities to the Cambodian people through his representatives.

Cambodia remains plagued by a number of social ills, he said, like land grabbing and a scarcity of food, medicine and security, as well as immigration and corruption problems.

"For these kinds of problems, we really have to study the situation," he said. "I will solve the problems for the interest of the people, not the interest of the foreigner."

Cambodia's history is full of foreign influence. Its current geopolitical situation, caught between the interests of the US, China and others, means Cambodians have a long way to go before it is fully independent. Long, too, is the road to independent democracy.