A human rights intervention group of parliamentarians from Southeast Asia and members of the diplomatic community called on Cambodia’s ruling party on Wednesday to stop threatening violence ahead of nationwide commune council elections and expressed concern about the government’s plan to deploy armed forces on election day.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a group of former and serving Southeast Asian lawmakers, issued a statement expressing “concerns about the repeated threats of violence made by high-ranking members of the ruling party” and calling for an end to “threats, violence, and intimidation.”
The group urged Cambodian authorities to “ensure that the right of Cambodians to elect the candidates of their choice is protected.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly 32 years under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has warned repeatedly that opposition victories in local elections on June 4 and in parliamentary polls in 2018 will bring war to the country.
Political observers expect the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—the main opposition party and one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—to give the CPP a run for its money in the elections.
Phay Siphan, spokesperson of the Office of Council of Ministers and Secretary of State, dismissed APHR’s concerns, saying that Cambodians fully enjoy the right to vote and will be able to freely cast ballots without encountering any issues raised by the group.
He said that comments by Hun Sen and Defense Minister Tea Banh about the possibility of war should the ruling party lose the elections were meant to remind people of CNRP protests that turned violent in the aftermath of highly contested general elections in 2013.
The CNRP participated in demonstrations between July 2013 and July 2014 against Hun Sen’s government following widespread allegations of electoral fraud. The party boycotted parliament, and a government crackdown on striking garment workers who were allied with the protesters in January 2014 led to the deaths of four people and the injuring of dozens of others.
Phay Siphan downplayed APHR’s statement as an opinion piece by a private group that should not be taken into consideration.
He said APHR chairman Charles Santiago, a member of Malaysia’s parliament, “colored and attacked us” in the statement.
“He should spend time helping to improve any setbacks that his country is experiencing and that he has witnessed rather than interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs,” Phay Siphan said.
“ASEAN’s principles don’t allow anyone to interfere in the internal affairs of nations within the ASEAN community,” he added, in a reference to the regional organization comprising 10 Southeast Asian states which facilitates economic and political integration among its members.
Hang Puthea, spokesman of the National Election Committee (NEC), the agency that supervises Cambodia’s national elections, said his organization has taken steps so that all eligible Cambodians can vote and has been working with the armed forces to ensure stability and safety for citizens during the post-election period.
He called it a “positive sign” that the NEC has created a voter list that is up to 98 percent accurate and said his agency is working with election experts from the European Union, United States, and Japan.
“Should there be any cause for concern, one can lodge a complaint so we can investigate it,” he said about possible voting irregularities.
An APHR report on Cambodia titled “Death Knell for Democracy” issued on March 20 drew the ire of the Cambodian government for charging that Hun Sen and the CPP had created a “climate of fear” by expanding their crackdown on CNRP and activists ahead of the commune elections.
The government countered by saying that the ASEAN-linked group’s views did not reflect those of the larger regional body.
Diplomats weigh in
Ambassadors from the EU, U.S. and Japan expressed concern about the Cambodian government’s intent to deploy armed soldiers on June 4, saying that the move could affect the election process and spark fear among voters.
EU Ambassador George Edgar told reporters after a meeting with NEC officials on Wednesday the government’s plan to deploy more armed forces at polling stations than it did during previous elections could make voters jittery about casting ballots.
American Ambassador William A. Heidt said that the U.S. would be watching the elections closely.
“We from the United States are going to send a large delegation of people to the provinces to observe the election,” he told reporters, adding that the U.S. was pleased with the work of the NEC to ensure all eligible voters can cast ballots.
“We look forward to hopefully a very transparent and fair election on Sunday,” Heidt said.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea told the media that the presence of the armed forces is necessary during the elections to maintain order and security.
“What countries don’t have police or soldiers to protect order and peace?” he asked. “Before, the number [of deployed security forces] was even higher, but this time we are deploying more than 37,000 officers.”
Diplomats from the three countries also asked the NEC to announce the election results on June 4 after the ballots are tallied.
But the NEC said it cannot announce the results the same day because it needs time to investigate any election-related complaints that are filed.
Instead, the agency will announce the election results in three stages—preliminary results, temporary results, and official results—the last of which will be made public about 20 days after election day.
Marked ballots in Battambang
In a related development, Cambodians in Battambang, capital of northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province, voiced concern on Wednesday about CPP activists who held meetings with villagers to instruct them on how to tick off ruling party candidates on voting ballots.
The residents were especially concerned that the activists collected the marked sample ballots and took them away when they left the villages.
A resident of Ochar who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday that CPP activists, including village chiefs and candidates standing for commune counselor positions, gathered villagers and gave them tins of canned fish, bread, and a bottle of water in exchange for their ballots.
Ochar commune chief Hor Khoeun acknowledged that his party’s working group instructed residents on how to mark ballots for CPP candidates, saying that there is nothing illegal about the measure.
“Political parties have their own methods,” he said. “As for the CPP, we used sample ballots to teach citizens how to tick off parties so that they know the order of the political parties in the commune [as they will appear on the ballot].”
Reported by Neang Ieng, Chanren Chorn, Vanndeth Van, and Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.