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July 27 1998

Members of the Catholic Youth Group in Phnom Penh expressed mixed views on prospects for Cambodia following the national elections held July 26.

"I do not know who will win or who will lose. I do not have any hope yet," said a Catholic youth just prior to the polls. "I am afraid there will be war before or after the election," he added.

However, Virek, 21-year-old coordinator of the youth group and a worker at a printing house, said, "I will vote for a person who supports freedom of the press and personal freedoms."

"I want to live in a country where even rich people who break the law are brought to justice," he said, adding, "That does not happen here, but it must happen if we are to have democracy."

The two spoke with UCA News just before the elections, which were overseen by some 800 international observers and by Cambodians whose estimated numbers ranged from 20,000-60,000.

"I want to vote so the country will not have war," said a 19-year-old garment factory worker. "We have lived with war for a long time. If we vote, we can select people who will help us.

The two contenders for premiership are Second Prime Minister Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People´s Party, and former first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, ousted by Hun Sen in a coup in July 1997.

Ranariddh´s FUNCINPEC party had won a narrow victory in a U.N.-sponsored election in 1993 that led to a power-sharing deal.

Virek and other youth group members said that the elected government should pay more attention to the poorest Cambodians and develop the rural provinces.

"Currently, there is little food for people, and no work," Virek said.

"Many children become ´poverty orphans,´" he said, explaining that, "Their parents cannot afford to feed them, so they take them to a government orphanage, or the children run away from home to the city and join a gang."

"We have to help poor people have work in rural areas. We must develop the countryside so there is work and water for farmers, and then there will be better education for the children," the youth leader said.

Virek also said he is happy that international and Cambodian agencies are helping to develop the country, but he hopes that his own government will be more self-sufficient in the future.

Virek said that politicians did not make as many promises this year as in the 1993 election. They were the country´s first poll in more than 25 years, and the election turnout was nearly 100 percent.

"Politicians have not developed the country as they promised us in 1993," he said. "Now we can listen to some of the promises they make, but we cannot hope for much, because we know that in the past they made promises, also."

"Before, they promised to cut out corruption, but they did not do it," said another youth group member. "Now we have a lot of corruption and thieves. If we can solve these problems, people will feel safer."

Virek said there was tension leading up to the elections, and some feared violence. Many shopkeepers closed their shops, and food prices rose, he said. Families stockpiled eggs and rice, and even some of those in the market kept more food than usual for themselves rather than selling it.