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In Phnom Penh, US Voters Party, Debate

American voters gathered at the FCC restaurant in Phnom Penh on Saturday night to watch a recording of the third US 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 secret.

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 Afghanistan and a growing economic crisis have made Americans serious about this election, he said.

"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."

US voter Matthew Alan said he felt sorry for Cambodians who must keep their choices secret.

"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 half-price drinks.)

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 time."