American voters gathered at the FCC restaurant in Phnom Penh on Saturday night to watch a recording of the
presidential debate. As senators Barack Obama and John McCain prepared to
square off, the atmosphere at the FCC resembled a party, with participants looking
delighted, drinking, eating snacks and shouting their views.
The debate party underscored a stark difference between US
elections, a time of free speech, open opposition and celebration, and Cambodia's process,
where voters worry about their security and often keep their political choices
US presidential elections will be held Nov. 4, bringing to a
close a heavily contested race in an important time in US history.
During the debate, Wayne Weightman, chairman of the advocacy
group Democrats Abroad, said his group had registered both Democratic and
Republican party supporters from across Cambodia in an "important election."
Wars in Iraq
and a growing economic crisis have made Americans serious about this election,
"I can say that it has been incredible, that we see people
all over Cambodia,
Americans from all provinces, come to register," he said. "A lot of the people
that I talked to said that they wanted a change."
Tashi Bradford, from Washington,
DC, who spoke in sign language
through an interpreter, said there was no need for her to be afraid to speak of
her choice, Obama, on the Democratic ticket.
"It is no secret, and we have the freedom to say what we
want to," she said. "The freedom of speech and freedom to vote for who we want
is a cherished value."
voter Matthew Alan said he felt sorry for Cambodians who must keep their
"My Khmer friends asked me if I wanted to leave Cambodia for
the election because they thought I might be afraid," he said. "I think it is
fun to vote. It is a happy time. I think people in Cambodia
are more worried during election days than people in America."
Before playing a video of the debates, Weightman asked
audience members whether they had registered and encouraged them to do so.
Meanwhile, some groups said they would vote for Obama, and others for McCain,
but they expressed their intentions with pride, without fear or secrecy, even
if they sat next to a rival supporter.
As the debate was shown, some of the audience became
red-faced, not because of anger, but because of their drinking, a scene not
unlike some days ahead of Cambodian elections, although these can sometimes
turn violent. (Prime Minister Hun Sen banned drinking on the eve and day of
July's national election. On Saturday night, by contrast, the FCC offered
Koul Panha, executive director for the Committee for Free
and Fair Elections, said the US
presidential race could not be compared to Cambodian elections.
Many Americans are not secret in their political
preferences, and they cast their ballots without pressure, he said.
"Elections are normal for Europeans and Americans," he said.
"They freely express their opinions. They enjoy it. When democracy is mature,
it is like that. They are not worried about possible mistreatment, threats or
intimidation. They have fun with the process. Elections are a happy time for
them, to exercise their power, their decision to have political change. Our
country is still behind, so during the elections we sometimes see violence."
Koul Panha said that when real democracy comes to Cambodia,
voting secrecy will be a thing of the past, replaced with the freedom of speech
to claim one's support.
"We need to try hard to make Cambodian elections a normal
thing, an expression of opinion by the people," he said. "It will take a long