The three international observers wanted to tell their stories because they believed they had a different experience to offer.
Unlike most international observers, they had traveled off the beaten path. They had dropped in unannounced. They had been in Cambodia long enough to feel like they could pick up some of the nuances of what they saw and heard. And they weren’t constrained by group policy from speaking about their individual experiences.
Melissa Marschke spoke Wednesday of Vietnamese soldiers who seemed to roam freely in the Khmer village of Prey Tuol in Svay Rieng province, and had seized voter registration cards from at least six frightened residents.
Andrew Scher spoke of the CPP Devada logo he saw outside a remote polling station in Siem Reap province just before election day, and the village chief posted inside another station on polling day.
And Roel Eefting spoke of observing a polling station official cast votes for at least four elderly voters in Kampot province and town employees receiving 10,000 riel each from the CPP three days before the election.
Their collective conclusion: An undercurrent of intimidation predisposed many Cambodians to vote for the CPP. In the provinces they observed, the CPP won 11 seats to five for Funcinpec and one for the Sam Rainsy Party.
Allen Keesee, who initially collected their anecdotes as coordinator of the 89-member Independent International Observers Group, acknowledges the three were in a minority.
But he too believes their experience would prove fairly representative of what happened in the country if other international observers had been more strategically positioned.
Some international groups did note problems especially in the rural areas. But the UN-coordinated Joint International Observer Group evaluated the polls as sufficiently free and fair one night after the closing of the polls.
“It was even worse than a rush to judgment, it was a rush to misjudgment,” Keesee said.
He noted that most observer groups had been trained to look for technical errors. But their manuals didn’t prepare them to pick up the subtleties of the Cambodian culture. The observers for Keesee’s group all live in Cambodia.
“The essence of observation is not mechanical,” Keesee said. “And it’s not seeing if anyone is taking a machete to the voting box.”
On Wednesday, the three observers talked about their individual experiences.
Melissa Marschke went with a Cambodian and an Italian observer to Prey Tuol village in Svay Rieng, where she had already heard from a human-rights group that six people had their registration cards taken by Vietnamese soldiers.
Not only was that incident verified, but she could still feel an air of tension and intimidation. Vietnamese soldiers were roaming the area, claiming it was within the boundaries of Vietnam.
On the first day, she heard through her Cambodian translator that the soldiers were threatening to take certain Khmer villagers across the border if they had an ink stain on their finger indicating they had voted. She was not able, however, to verify that story when speaking to villagers after the election.
Marschke, who has spent a year in Laos as well as half a year in Cambodia, said to really understand what’s going on as an observer one has to “peel away” the layers.
Andrew Scher, a lawyer by training, was in Siem Reap with a Cambodian friend who grew up in the district.
“People along Route 6 knew very well they were going to be observed” and the polling stations were by and large “clean,” he said. “But beyond that area, it was a different story.”
For example, the day before the election, he and his friend traveled by motorcycle 15 km along a pot-holed road to a polling station at a wat.
There, they saw the CPP Devada logo at the gates to the pagoda. They were told by villagers that it had been put up the day before.
The next day, on election day, they heard a report about a village chief sitting inside another polling station in the area dressed in a khaki uniform. They went to investigate. The polling station chief denied the man was the village chief.
But two days later—after JIOG already had made its conclusions about the election—Andrew Scher and his friend verified the man’s identity by talking to villagers including his niece. The village chief had been posted in the polling station all day.
Imagine, Scher said, what it must feel like for a Cambodian voter to see their village chief in his uniform looking at them as they get their ballot to vote.
Roel Eefting, who has lived in the Kampot area for several years, talked about how the village chiefs there have intimidated people from expressing different opinions since the factional fighting in July 1997. Most recently, he said, villagers were pressured not to attend a pre-election rally held by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Three days before the election, many government employees received 10,000 riel each from the CPP, he said.
At the polling station, one official voted for four elderly people, he said. “Observers were just sitting outside because it was too hot inside,” he said.
“I’m astonished that Funcinpec, Rainsy got so many votes when you take into account the whole election period,” Eefting said.