Cambodians are ready to vote today

REUTERS , PHNOM PENH

Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 5

Jammed into buses and cars, tens of thousands of Cambodians left the capital yesterday to return to their villages for today's general election, which marks another step from the horror of the `Killing Fields.'

If they pass peacefully, the polls to elect a new 123-seat National Assembly will be a rare positive achievement for the troubled southeast Asian nation, still struggling with the legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s.

An estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of torture, disease or starvation in the vast rural labour camps which would become known as the "Killing Fields."

Election monitors say the number of political killings in the run-up to the elections is down compared to violent national polls in 1993 and 1998, although voter intimidation -- particularly in the remote jungle-clad provinces -- remains widespread.

There was little evidence of fear in the carnival atmosphere which prevailed on the final day of official campaigning on Friday as thousands of supporters of the three main parties paraded their flags and banners through Phnom Penh's streets.

A cooling off "Day of Silence," yesterday was a chance for thousands in the capital to return to their villages to cast their votes.

The ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a one-eyed former Khmer Rouge soldier, is expected to win the polls comfortably.

However, the royalist FUNCINPEC and opposition Sam Rainsy Party, run by Hun Sen's arch enemy, French-educated former finance minister Sam Rainsy, hope to deny him enough seats for an absolute majority.

The National Election Commission (NEC) said heavy rains were hampering efforts to deliver ballot-boxes to some remote jungle outposts.