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Cambodian Opposition Leader Optimistic About Communal Elections

Cambodia’s opposition party leader told his supporters in a video speech posted online on Monday that upcoming communal elections will be better than the last ones thanks to a revamped National Election Committee that includes members from both the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

During the speech in Tram Kak district of southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province the day before, CNRP President Kem Sokha conveyed his optimism that the country’s communal elections on June 4 will be better because the National Election Committee, the country’s electoral body, now includes four CNRP members, four CPP members, and one member from civil society.

“Concerns regarding missing names of voters on voters’ lists have been addressed,” he said.

“A lot of improvements have been seen in voter registration thanks to the assistance provided to the NEC by Japan and the European community to register voters through electronic means,” he said. “The number of voters has increased significantly.”

Kem Sokha said there were good signs that voters’ lists are now secure, and that observers from the international community and local nongovernmental organizations will monitor the elections.

The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 communal elections, held before the CNRP was formed.

Domestic monitors, however, detected scores of cases of irregularities during the election campaign, including intimidation, vote-buying, and the destruction of parties’ leaflets and logos.

The opposition party went on to win nearly half the vote in a general election the following year.

This time around the CNRP is one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats on the June 4 ballot that many see as a bellwether for general elections in 2018.

Observers believe that the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June elections.

Party congress on Tuesday

Kem Sokha’s comments come just as the CNRP is about to hold a party congress on Tuesday, though municipal officials in the capital Phnom Penh have limited the number of participants to 1,000 people.

The city’s deputy governor Khuong Sreng sent a letter on Monday to the CNRP cautioning it not to cause traffic obstructions at the party’s headquarters while holding the congress.

He also urged the party to educate its supporters not to use the congress to provoke violence.

At the congress, the CNRP will amend a crucial bylaw that allows the selection of three vice presidents in a bid to placate the country’s Ministry of Interior, which rejected the party’s previous method of naming party leaders.

The clash between the CNRP and ministry over the CNRP’s leadership selection process began in March after former party president Sam Rainsy resigned.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday warned Cambodians again of war and other negative consequences if they do not vote for candidates from the CPP.

He told CPP supporters in the presence of visiting Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, that there are those in Cambodia who want peace and those who want conflict with neighboring countries, so it is now up to the people to decide.

“The floor is yours!” he said. “Actually there are people who want peace and continued development. At the same time there are people who want conflicts and rivalries in relations with neighboring countries.”

Hun Sen’s comments were an indirect reference to past allegations by the CNRP that maps being used by the CPP government in border negotiations with Vietnam were fake or inaccurate.

The country’s border disputes arose from unclear frontier demarcations left by former French colonial administrators after Cambodia gained independence in 1953. Disagreements over the demarcations have prompted armed clashes between Cambodia and its neighbors, including Vietnam.

During his speech, Hun Sen also spoke in Vietnamese for more than two minutes after he said he felt that the interpreter was not doing an adequate job of translating his speech into Vietnamese.

He asked Cambodians not to condemn him or treat him as a Vietnamese puppet.

“When I spoke Vietnamese, I was considered a puppet of Vietnam,” he said. “However, I have never been called a puppet of France and England when I have spoken some French or English.”

In defense of the CNRP

In response to Hun Sen’s words, CNRP Senior Lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang said his party has made genuine peace and development a priority.

“We have reiterated time and again that when the CNRP wins the elections, all Cambodians are winners,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “The CNRP won’t treat any Cambodian as an enemy. We are one Khmer people. Our foreign policies with neighboring countries will focus on good relations and mutual interests.”

Political commentator Meas Ny said he is not convinced that any individuals or groups in the country want to engage in conflicts with neighboring countries, and that some border issues with Vietnam have stemmed from people’s concerns about irregularities.

“Cambodians are still divided with regard to border issues with Vietnam,” he told RFA. “It’s not a conflict between the two countries, but rather a conflict among Cambodians over Cambodia-Vietnam border issues.”

“It’s good to develop areas near the borders and improve cross-border commercial activities,” he said. “However, it is meaningless if a neighboring country does not respect our sovereignty.”

Reported by Sothearin Yeang, Vanndeth Van, and Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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RFA Khmer Reporter Receives Court Summons Over Prey Sar Visit

An RFA Khmer Service reporter who Cambodian authorities say improperly entered a prison with opposition politicians visiting jailed party members received a court summons on Saturday for questioning.

Khmer service Deputy Director Vuthy Huot, also known as Chun Chamboth, was ordered to appear at Phnom Penh Municipality Court on May 2 for questioning. The summons, obtained by RFA, says he “made a false statement to disguise his identity to access the prison” during an April 19 visit to Prey Sar Prison.

The summons was issued by Phnom Penh Deputy Prosecutor Seang Sok and dated April 21, according to a copy of the document seen by RFA.

On April 19, Vuthy Huot said he had gone at first to the prison on his own to visit Kim Sok, a jailed political and social commentator. His visit coincided with that of a delegation of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials to meet with 16 jailed party officials and activists.

“But I was not allowed to see (Kim Sok) as I was told I would need a court order unless I was a member of his immediate family,” he told RFA after the visit.

“I then left the prison’s security checkpoint. But by a coincidence the [CNRP] officials arrived, and I asked them if I could enter along with them,” said Vuthy Huot.

He said he had not attempted to disguise himself on entry.

“The prison guards knew me well, and addressed me directly as Chun Chamboth,” he said, adding, “I even registered in my real name.”

Following the visit the Cambodian Interior Ministry banned future visits to political opposition officials and activists, and ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said the CNRP had “cheated” prison authorities by including the reporter in their party after he had earlier been turned away.

But CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua said the reporter had entered on his own.

“We have no idea why he was allowed in,” she said on April 19.

The Phnom Penh Post reported on Friday that Cambodia’s Prison Department had produced a report saying Vuthy Huot had violated the Criminal Code by using a identity different than his public identity and had broken privacy provisions under the Press Code.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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Man Who Killed Cambodian Political Analyst Files Appeal For Reduced Life Sentence

A former soldier sentenced to life in prison in March for murdering prominent Cambodian political analyst Kem Ley filed an appeal through his attorney on Thursday, arguing that the punishment handed down by the trial court is too harsh.

On March 23, the  Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Oeuth Ang—who calls himself Chuob Samlab, a Khmer name meaning “meet to kill”—solely responsible for Kem Ley’s death and guilty of illegal possession of a weapon and premeditated murder.

Kem Ley, 46, was gunned down on the morning of July 10, 2016, as he stopped for coffee in a Star Mart store at a gasoline station at a busy intersection in the capital Phnom Penh.

Yung Phanith, Oeuth Ang’s attorney, said his client considers life imprisonment too heavy a penalty to pay because it does not offer him an opportunity to rehabilitate himself.

“He [Oeuth Ang] said that the court has punished him too heavily,” said Yung Phanith. “Life imprisonment is too harsh a sentence. He wants the appeals court to reduce the sentence so that he can have a chance to reform himself and return to live in his community after he has served a reduced sentence.”

Am Sam Ath, head of investigations for the domestic rights group Licadho, said that although Oeuth Ang has the legal right to appeal the court’s decision, the most important consideration in the matter is that the court must conduct a further investigation to clear up public doubt about how the case has been handled.

Oeuth Ang confessed during his brief March 1 trial to shooting Kem Ley twice at point-blank range over an unpaid U.S. $3,000 debt, though his motive was not supported by physical evidence, and witness testimony suggested others were involved in the crime.

Several inconsistencies in Oeuth Ang’s statements also prompted widespread skepticism over how the case was handled.

Later that month, more than 60 local civil society organizations issued a statement demanding that an independent commission comprised of experts from outside Cambodia investigate Kem Ley’s murder, citing what they called an insufficient investigation of the case.

“I don’t think the case ends with Chuob Samlab being sentenced,” said Am Sam Ath. “The court will need to find other people who are behind this murder.”

“Those who were responsible for the crime must be brought in for prosecution,” he said. “Justice will need to be done and seen to be done to the victim’s family. Something needs to done to restore public faith in justice.”

Reported by Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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US Seabees Expulsion Leaves Rural Cambodians in the Lurch

Villagers in western Cambodia’s Battambang province said Wednesday that the government’s decision to cancel a contract with a unit of the U.S. Navy for millions of dollars of humanitarian work last month has left them without access to adequate maternal health care facilities.

In late March, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government notified the U.S. Embassy that it had decided to indefinitely postpone a humanitarian assistance program with the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion—better known as the Seabees—after nine years of work in Cambodia.

The decision canceled 20 planned projects across several provinces, the U.S. Embassy said in an April 3 statement posted on its Facebook page.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman told RFA’s Khmer Service at the time that Cambodia’s defense ministry offered no reason for the decision, which scrapped six bathroom facilities for schools and two new maternity wards in 2017, at a cost U.S. $265,000, and an additional U.S. $550,000 in projects planned for 2018-2019.

The embassy has referred requests for information about the status of the projects to the Cambodian government.

Cambodia’s defense ministry has denied canceling the contract, which has seen the Seabees deliver more than U.S. $5 million in service projects since 2008, working with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and local communities to build hospital and school improvements in 11 provinces.

On Wednesday, villagers from Battambang’s Maung district praised the work of the Seabees in upgrading a health center in Kor Koh commune in 2015, saying the facility has provided critical medical services to residents.

Mean Rumchang, a 23-year-old pregnant woman from Kor Koh, said she depends on the health center and expressed frustration that the government’s decision to cancel the contract had thrown plans for a new maternity ward into flux.

“My house is close to the center and I don’t have money for medical treatment at places further away than here,” she said.

“If [the Seabees] come to help construct a maternity ward near here, it would be much more convenient for us. Without their support, we must travel far for treatment, affecting our livelihood.”

One of several patients lined up to receive medical treatment from the Kor Koh health center on Wednesday told RFA the facility was affordable and convenient.

“Poor people, such as myself, can come to this health center from far away for care,” said the patient, who spoke to RFA anonymously.

“I would be much happier if they continued their help.”

Vann Kim Orn, who runs the Kor Koh health center, told RFA that she had hoped the Seabees would add a new maternity ward and a clean water well for the use of residents and her staff members.

“[But] if the U.S. has concluded its mission, it will affect the residents,” she said.

“My goal was to oversee the building of a maternity ward, so we can accommodate additional residents for medical treatment—particularly women and children,” she said, noting that Kor Koh commune consists of eight villages, which are home to 14,869 people, or around 3,160 families.

Vann Kim Orn said she had already submitted a request to the Seabees for assistance in constructing the maternity ward and well, but has yet to receive a reply.

Shifting loyalties

Cambodia’s decision to expel the Seabees comes after its defense ministry earlier this year suspended annual “Angkor Sentinel” joint exercises with the U.S. military and abandoned counter-terrorism training exercises with the Australian military.

The government has claimed it is too busy preparing security for June commune elections to take part in the exercises, but observers say the moves indicate Cambodia is pivoting away from Western influence in favor of better relations with other countries on the rise in Asia, such as China.

Last year marked the first joint naval drill between China and Cambodia, after Beijing provided Phnom Penh with military aid, including weapons and training.

After reports emerged that the Seabees contract had been suspended, the Phnom Penh Post quoted government spokesman Phay Siphan denying that Cambodia was shifting away from Washington and improving its relationship with Beijing.

“We respect the mutual interests of both countries,” he said, referring further questions to the defense ministry.

Trade between Cambodia and China is expected to surpass U.S. $5 billion in 2017.

Reported by Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia Bans Future Visits to Jailed Opposition Lawmakers

Cambodia’s Interior Ministry has banned future visits to political opposition officials and activists held in Prey Sar Prison, saying that a group of lawmakers had improperly allowed an RFA Khmer Service reporter to accompany them to the prison on Wednesday.

The announcement by ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said that the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had “cheated” prison authorities by including Vuthy Hout, Khmer service deputy director, in their party after he had earlier been turned away.

Vuthy Huot, also known as Chun Chamboth, said he had gone at first to the prison on his own to visit jailed political and social commentator Kim Sok.

“But I was not allowed to see him, as I was told I would need a court order unless I was a member of his immediate family,” he said.

“I then left the prison’s security checkpoint. But by a coincidence the [CNRP] officials arrived, and I asked them if I could enter along with them,” he said.

The reporter had not attempted to disguise himself on entry, he said.

“The prison guards knew me well, and addressed me directly as Chun Chamboth,” he said, adding, “I even registered in my real name.”

‘Entered on his own’

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service April 19 after the group’s visit to 16 jailed CNRP officials and activists, CNRP vice president Mu Sochua said that Vuthy Huot had entered the prison on his own.

“We have no idea why he was allowed in,” she said.

The opposition party members held at Prey Sar are relying on Cambodian voters to seek justice for them by voting for their party in local commune elections scheduled in June, Mu Sochua said.

“In the meantime, they do not want to serve as political bargaining chips,” she said.

The CNRP is one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats on the June 4 ballot that many see as a bellwether for general elections in 2018.

Observers believe that the CNRP could give the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June elections.

Calls for change

Also speaking to RFA, CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San questioned the CNRP’s chances for electoral wins, saying the party has lost support in recent months.

“Previously, when their forces were united, they got only 55 seats. So what about now, when they are politically divided? It may be enough for them to win 10 seats this time.”

There are now strong calls for change in Cambodia, though, and the CNRP may win if fair elections are held, political commentator So Chantha told RFA.

“If there are no more threats, if there is no more vote buying or intimidation, representatives will be elected according to the people’s will,” he said.

“And then, the courts will no longer be influenced by politicians or by any political party,” he said.

Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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Cambodian Opposition Party to Hold Congress to Select Vice Presidents

Cambodia’s main opposition party will hold a party congress next week to amend a crucial bylaw that allows the selection of three vice presidents in another bid to placate the country’s Ministry of Interior which rejected the party’s previous method of naming party leaders, a party official said Tuesday.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) will choose one vice president and further amend its bylaws when the congress is held on April 25 in Phnom Penh, Pol Ham, one of the CNRP’s current three vice presidents and the party’s acting president, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday.

The clash between the CNRP and ministry over the CNRP’s leadership selection process began in March after former party president Sam Rainsy resigned.

Pol Ham, said that the opposition party does not want any trouble with the ministry and that after April 25 congress, the CNRP’s steering committee members will be able to select the other two vice presidents.

He also said the congress will not affect the party’s internal regulations.

“What we are doing is meant to ease the procedures because of the Ministry of Interior,” he said. “The ministry said we didn’t do it right the last time, so we will do it again.”

“We just want to make sure things go smoothly and are accepted by the Ministry of Interior,” Pol Ham said.

Pol Ham also said the CNRP will amend some articles in the party bylaws at the congress to make them clearer and prevent them from being misinterpreted.

“We need to have clear bylaws so that no one can over-interpret them,” he said.

Absolute majority

On Monday, the CNRP decided to amend Article 47 of its internal regulations a second time, after an initial change at another congress in March, and submit the changes to another congress for approval, The Cambodia Daily reported.

The CNRP amended the article to state that if there is no vice president, the steering committee has to choose new vice presidents from its members by an absolute majority of votes of 50 percent plus one to assist the president until the end of the mandate, the report said, quoting Pol Ham.

If the congress approves the change, the steering committee can choose the vice presidents and would select the same three lawmakers for the role, Pol Ham said.

On March 31, the CNRP notified the Ministry of Interior of amendments to its party bylaws after the ministry had declared the opposition’s appointment of Kem Sokha as president illegitimate, throwing its participation in the upcoming elections into question.

The ministry had claimed that the appointment during a March 2 extraordinary congress ran afoul of the CNRP’s statute, based on documentation the party filed in 2013, requiring a moratorium on electing a new president for 18 months after the post was vacated.

The CNRP had amended the statute at the congress before appointing new leadership.

Then earlier this month, the CNRP notified the Ministry of Interior that it had re-endorsed its leadership and removed a slogan to comply with newly amended party bylaws.

It submitted a letter to the ministry informing it that Kem Sokha remained the president of the party along with the three same vice presidents—Pol Ham, Mu Sochua, and Eng Chhai Eang.

The CNRP also said it had removed its slogan “Replace the commune chiefs who serve the party with the commune chiefs who serve the people” in the run-up to local elections on June 4.

The CNRP is one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats on the June 4 ballot that many see as a bellwether for general elections in 2018.

Observers believe that the CNRP could give the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June elections.

Reported by Van Vanndeth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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