Sy Kan, 56, knows her vote is supposed to be secret. She heard the message from Untac Radio in 1993 and she wants to believe in it now. But sitting last week talking to a young student near her Tuol Kok home, she confessed she is worried.
“I have heard that people can know my secret because of modern electronic systems like the computer, so I’m afraid of being harassed next time if I don’t vote for them,” Sy Kan said.
Patiently, Bun Socheath, a 19-year-old student at Santhor Mok High School, explained to her that computers are only used to record registration information, not votes themselves.
“One must realize that a ballot you cast for any party in the election is unknowable,” he said. “It is cheating your own conscience if you don’t vote for a party that you like.”
After 20 minutes, Sy Kan was finally convinced and confident that no one will know which party’s box she ticks July 26.
Bun Socheath is not an elections official or a volunteer for an election watchdog group. He is simply a conscientious student who views it as his duty to dispel myths about the election.
But around the country, there may not be enough Bun Socheaths to combat what many see as an orchestrated campaign to undermine voters’ confidence in ballot secrecy.
Potential voters have had their thumbprints taken, their registration cards collected and their voter identification numbers recorded. They’ve been told that their information is “in a computer” and in some cases, that the CPP has satellites that can see into the voting booth, human rights investigators say.
As a result, apprehension about ballot secrecy appears to be rife, especially among Cambodia’s uneducated rural poor, said Chea Vannath, acting president of the Center for Social Development.
The superstitions and poverty of little-educated peasants fuel the tactics, Chea Vannath said. People who swear an oath of loyalty or who accept gifts, often feel they will be punished or face religious damnation if they do not vote for that party.
The CPP has strongly denied using any such tactics and scoffs at the suggestion of a campaign to make people doubt the confidentiality of their vote.
Still, Lao Mong Hay, president of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said people do not seem as confident about the secret ballot as in 1993. And he said such a lack of trust could jeopardize the entire election.
“Secrecy of the vote is the guarantee of free elections,” he said.
“Without secrecy of vote, there cannot be free choice,” he said. “If people have to look over their shoulder, there is no point.”
For this reason, several campaigns have begun to convince voters that, despite what anyone says, they can vote their consciences with confidence.
The National Election Committee, which Lao Mong Hay has previously criticized for not emphasizing ballot secrecy, is currently preparing seven television and five radio spots focusing on the issue.
“We will release all the broadcast spots and documents in the coming days to educate people to understand that nobody can know the content of their secret ballot,” NEC spokesman Leng Sochea said last week.
“Education and information is the key to the election. So we have to keep people informed of their concerns in order to make way for [free and fair] elections,” he said.
The NEC also plans to distribute about 50,000 copies of the message from King Norodom Sihanouk convincing people their votes will be secret, and appealing to them to vote according to their conscience.
Another statement, written by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in support of the King’s appeal, will also be distributed in the election run-up.
NGOs and election watchdog groups also are working to combat apprehension about the confidentiality of the vote.
The election group Neutral Impartial Committee of Free Elections for Cambodia last week showcased one in a series of educational dramas to be performed in rural areas.
The drama depicts a family conflict breaking out after a man accepts a bribe from a party to collect votes, but his wife and children refuse to go along with it.
The man panics, believing he and his whole family could be killed unless they vote for that party.
Like Sy Kan, he knows that computers are used in the electoral process but mistakenly believes they can be used to reveal his vote.
An argument in the family is broken up by electoral officials, who explain that the poll is conducted secretly, with voters marking their papers in private booths before putting them in the ballot box after which no-one can know how they voted.
“A performance like this is very helpful for poorly-educated people in the countryside who don’t have TV or radio,” explained NICFEC president Hang Puthea, at the launch of the education campaign on Thursday. This is the second program of its kind to be undertaken by NICFEC: A similar voter registration campaign reached around 430,000 in 15 provinces, and it is hoped this one will have a similar reach.
Mom Sok, deputy chairman of the National Election Committee’s education and training department, welcomed the initiative’s efforts to combat the fear and misinformation rife in the provinces.