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Will Trumps Gifts for Preah Vihear Voters

Voters in Preah Vihear province say they have been exposed to many irregularities and pressure in past elections, but none of that matters once they are able to cast their ballot in private.

Villagers in this remote province report gift-giving ahead of elections, of scarves, sarongs, T-shirts, hats and radios, as well as promised of rice and money. They report false oaths and political discrimination, threats of local authorities, difficulties in obtaining voter identification and other documents, confusion over polling sights, confusion over voter lists and denial of access to information.

More than 8 million people are registered to vote for 11 separate parties July 27, and many here say they will vote their will.

Ouk Thorn, 68, a Kuoy minority in the province, said she receives gifts every time an election comes around. She’s illiterate, she said, and depends on the village chief or other community leaders to check her name on the voter list.

A widow, she relies on the sale of groceries and farming; she can recall only party names and logos, she said. Still, she is able to vote freely once inside the booth.

“When going in, I just tick freely,” she said in a recent interview, laughing. In her tribe, people say, “Go vote alone, together.”

Another Kuoy, a man name Ly Meng, who has three children, said he has notices that election violence is declining, but gift-giving has continued.

Once he’s inside the voting booth, he said, people “do not know who we are voting for.”

A third Kuoy man who asked that he not be named said people are threatened ahead of elections, and on Election Day the local authorities stand around, adding indirect pressure, secretly marking who is associated with any particular group.

“They will make trouble to block those who are not the member [of the political party], but free those who are a member,” the man said, adding the nature of Khmers was to fear authority.

“There will not be a free and fair election,” he said, “as the ruling party forces villagers into their party, with or without the knowledge of the individual.”

Paha Village Chief Sao Sok told VOA Khmer there were no cases of irregularities or voter intimidation in this village, but he said the role of the chief is to help people vote on Election Day.

“Every party is there to monitor, so no one can intimidate or make fraud,” he said. “No way.”

Lon Sithan, of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, in Preah Vihear, said voters here are confused about information cards, and many of them have no identification or money to give to police to obtain them, so about 40 percent fail to vote.

“Sometimes voters are neglected; it’s both sides’ mistake,” she said.

Comfrel informs people to help them deal with the election, but they cannot see every irregularity.

“If they do it secretly, we do not know,” she said. “At night, we do not know, but we see the ruling party strengthening the party when elections come.”

About 50 percent of the people in the province are illiterate, so the vote “seems to favor only the ruling party.”

There are many reasons people fail to vote.

Ex-soldier Chhun Sreng of Tbeng Meanchey district, who lost his right had during the war, said his wife could not vote in 2007’s commune election because she was not issued information about an ID and photo ahead of time. He has seen gift-giving too, but that does not influence him, he said.

“I will not sell my idealism,” he said.

He’s happy to take gifts, because he is poor, he said, but “you do not know who I am voting for.”

Farmer Loeung Sideth, who moved from Kampong Speu province, said the village chief here had assured him he can vote without going back, but he said he wasn’t sure about his name on an election list.

Pon Pin, a 19-year-old laborer on a farm, said he was poor and busy working, though he had no money to get an ID card at home in Kampong Cham province.

Last election, his age made him ineligible to vote, he said, but now he was too busy working to get his card.

Kang Sophal, from the same village as Pon pin, said he did not have $20 to give police for a new ID, having lost his original last October.

“How can I do it?” he said. “They demand a lot, and I do not have money.”

Som Yon, chief of Parlhal commune, acknowledged that there were some police demands for money for cards, but he said in his commune there was no intimidation, fraud or violence.

People in his commune, he said, “vote according to will.”