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Chapter 60: The Voting Game

Our goals at work shifted with the New Year. The registration phase was nearly complete, and the attention of the DESs turned in earnest to civic education.

Civic education, transformative education, was my life’s blood. I could teach it blindfolded in my university classrooms—in English, with some agreed-upon curriculum, to students already socialized into some semblance of core Western values. But this time around I wasn’t teaching, the course wasn’t offered in English and there was no script. The civic education class was for people who could scarcely see through the fog of centuries of oppression. And my staff, who only a few short weeks ago were selling skewered spiders and baked bread, would have to teach the material. It would take something way past a miracle to pull this off.

“Okay,” I said to the members of my staff, who were sitting on the floor of our meeting room. “You will break up into the same teams that you had for registration.” People shifted and moved to form their teams.

“Team leaders who do a good job with civic education will be appointed Polling Officers, or POs, and will earn in five days of voting what others earn for the entire election process.” This bit of motivational inspiration had just come to me. Wati looked at me with a mixture of consternation and curiosity. I grimaced, but it was too late. The room was abuzz with the challenge.

“Each team has to choose the most important reasons for voting and then discuss how to convince the average villager to vote.” Using catchy tunes and writing slogans that reminded me of those posted in middle school elections, the teams developed farcical and dramatic scripts for skits that explained the idea of secret ballots, voting and democratic politics.

Funky perhaps but free of cynicism, their messages were pure, unabashed yearnings for a system that held the promise of a better life. For some team members, that meant the end to violence; for others, political freedom; and a few simply wanted access to more rice. Competing for a packet of the US Army’s Meals Ready to Eat, they performed their skits for each other amidst applause and laughter. I taught everyone how to do a “high five.”

Aut panyaha, no problem, was my favorite Khmae phrase and had become my staff’s stock response to the challenges of civic education as well. Cheong Prey had become the district of aut panyaha.

A few team leaders and a theatre group formed from the teams with the winning skits left with me early one morning to travel to a remote village for a civic education program. To attract the villagers, we played a music soundtrack over the loudspeaker, which was hoisted on top of a skinny bamboo pole twenty feet high. I watched as a procession of villagers―young and old, dogs and children―drifted in, climbed up onto the wooden slat floor of the open pavilion and settled down on the palm mats covering the floor.

Nhean helped me to give my stock speech, speaking simultaneously. “Chom-reab-suor, I’m CJ Havra, bah snout, electoral supervisor. My team is here today to help you understand the election and your right to vote in secret.”

The theater group put on two of their skits and took the villagers through a voting day role-playing exercise. A female volunteer was pulled up and over to a box and handed a pencil and paper. The actors made a circle around her and wrapped themselves in a large plastic shower curtain while the narrator explained the secret ballot. A small ruckus erupted when the woman couldn’t escape the sheeting. But at the end of the skit, the pavilion exploded in applause, and my theater group and the volunteer performers bowed so low that their foreheads swept the floor.

Wati and I tried a different tactic at a pagoda in a smaller village surrounded by dense forest. After we set up a mock ballot booth in the pagoda, the villagers stood in a ragged semi-circle, playing like school children with the sample ballots and pencils we gave them. Only when we began to explain how to mark their choices with an X did we have their full attention.

We were in the middle of the voting game when two rifle shot reports cut through the still, humid air; government soldiers were warning that guerrillas were close. There was still no truce between the Khmer Rouge and Untac. Warning or not, the villagers wanted to finish the game.

“Should we leave?” Wati whispered, barely moving her lips.

“No, we can’t. The villagers need to trust us, but I’m petrified,” I admitted.


I blew air out over my bottom lip. I had never before heard Wati speak in her native Indonesian and I could only guess what she had said. I told Nhean, “We stay.”

We continued the voting game until each villager had filled out a sample ballot, our hearts racing wildly the entire time. Remembering my past experience with the Khmer Rouge, with a knee-jerk reaction I looked to make sure that I wasn’t wearing cowboy boots.

Two of the younger villagers grinned at us and whispered together like little boys. “Who will win?” they asked, in voices barely above a whisper.

“We don’t know. The outcome depends upon the voting. The person with the most votes will win. That’s why you must register and vote for whomever you want,” I replied through Nhean.

“The winner, will he kill his opponents?” another villager asked more boldly. Wati answered. “No, in a democracy, there is no killing your political enemy. You must make him part of the government. He could always run against you in the next election.”

All of the villagers were staring at us. One of them asked, “Another election?” He shook his head in disbelief.

Before we could answer, another shot rang out and the village chief came into the pagoda. In response to his whistle and barely a shout, the villagers turned and vanished into the safety of their houses. Involuntarily, my hand went to the little wooden Buddha, which I had put on a sturdier chain. I wondered out loud if these warnings not to vote would continue through the May election . . . and whether we would survive them. Then I silently asked the Moon Goddess for a little added protection. It couldn’t hurt.

Wati and I returned to the truck. Once we were on the road, we opened the little cardboard ballot box and scooped out the folded scraps of paper. The first votes were as we expected―for Hunsen, the leader of the provisional government. I picked up another scrap and unfolded a big surprise. One of the villagers had written “Pol Pot” on his ballot. I was awed by the peasantry’s continued support for this murderer. But at least this voter actually believed that the vote was secret and he could indicate his true choice.

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