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WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 - The National Democratic Institute's senior representative in Cambodia has praised Radio Free Asia (RFA) for its exhaustive coverage of the Southeast Asian country's ongoing election campaign. Eric Kessler, NDI's resident representative in Phnom Penh, notably welcomed RFA's decision to broadcast all six candidate debates in the runup to national polls set for Feb. 3. He also welcomed the election itself as a unique opportunity for peaceful change. NDI, a Washington-based nonprofit whose Cambodian operations are funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and U.S. Agency for International Development, is sponsoring the candidate debates along with the Khmer Institute for Democracy. "In the past, only violence has been the instrument for change in Cambodian history. This is an opportunity to change that is helping voters to decide what the candidates are all about," Kessler said, introducing a Jan. 23 debate in Kompong Cham Province. RFA alone has committed to broadcasting all six debates scheduled ahead of the election, in which Cambodians will choose 1,621 commune councils, which govern clusters of villages. Cambodia's National Election Committee has so far declined to air any of the debates on government-run television or radio, saying fairness required that it broadcast debates in all 1,621 communes or none. That decision has drawn sharp criticism from Cambodia's Committee for Free and Fair Elections, an independent poll-watching organization. More than one dozen party activists and candidates have been killed in the last few months, most from the opposition Sam Rainsy party. Officials are reluctant to describe these as political murders and have made few arrests in connection with the killings. The commune is the smallest level of local government, and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has appointed all commune representatives in the past. Headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who seized power in a 1997 coup, the CPP has governed Cambodia since 1979. These forthcoming elections offer Cambodians a chance to choose their own communal representatives-and, if they choose, to decentralize and diminish the CPP's power. RFA's Khmer Service began expanded election coverage on Dec. 25, adding an hour-long program focusing on Cambodian youth. On the day the campaign officially began, Jan. 18, RFA added another two hours of special coverage for a total of five hours daily. Preparations for the expanded coverage have been under way for months and include the hiring and training of an additional 12 Khmer journalists who are reporting from throughout Cambodia's provinces. The additional broadcasts will continue until the votes are counted and results certified. Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a private, nonprofit corporation broadcasting news and information to listeners in those Asian countries where full, accurate, and timely news reports are unavailable. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA aims to deliver such news reports-along with opinions and commentaries-and to provide a forum for a variety of voices and opinions. RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest journalistic standards and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance, and fairness in its editorial content.

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