Cambodian officials on Tuesday denied claims by a rights group that members of the military and police are using their positions to wage an election campaign for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, saying they have the right as voters to back any party outside of their office hours.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch charged Monday that Cambodia’s security forces are “openly campaigning” for Hun Sen and the CPP in the polls and that the partisanship of the army, police, and gendarmerie had created “an intimidating atmosphere for voters” in many parts of the country.
“Cambodia’s armed forces and police should be nonpartisan state institutions, but during the pre-election period they have acted as the campaign arm for Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling party,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a report.
“Security forces that act on behalf of one party skew election results and make the process unfair for other parties and candidates,” he said as campaigning intensified ahead of the July 28 vote, which the CPP is widely expected to win.
‘Right to campaign’
Government officials lashed out at the Human Rights Watch report, saying security personnel have remained neutral while in uniform.
Mok Chito, an official of the Ministry of Interior's Criminal Department, denied to RFA’s Khmer Service that his officers have used their positions to campaign for the ruling party, saying they have campaigned “on their own time.”
“During our hours of service, we are neutral,” Mok Chito said.
“But when we are off on the weekend, we become normal citizens and can do what we want to do.”
Mok Chito dismissed the Human Rights Watch report, saying it was intended to “please its donors.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the report “aims to support the opposition party.”
“Officers have the right to campaign—they campaigned without wearing any uniforms.”
When asked to comment, Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, a senior military official who was cited in the Human Rights Watch report, said he wouldn’t provide interviews by telephone.
Human Rights Watch said that “partisan activity” by the security forces on behalf of the CPP, including by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the police, has been ongoing for months and continued unabated since the formal opening of the electoral campaign period on June 27.
It cited several examples, including visits by military supreme commander Pol Saroeun to Sihanouk province and military Joint General Staff chairman Kun Kim to Oddar Meanchey province, both in late May, during which they called on the people to “ensure a CPP election by voting en masse for it” and “a CPP that would keep long-ruling Hun Sen in power.”
Human Rights Watch said that Hun Sen’s son, military Joint General Staff vice-chairman Hun Manet, had also visited Svay Rieng province in June “to headline a CPP rally,” and that military deputy supreme commander Hing Bunhieng presided over meetings organized by the CPP in Kandal province a month earlier.
Adams said that when security forces take sides in elections, voters feel intimidated.
“The fact that the Cambodian security forces act as a de facto wing of the CPP has disastrous effects on human rights and democratic processes,” he said.
“The U.N. and member countries, especially those long supporting elections in Cambodia, should make it clear that the security forces’ role is inconsistent with a free and fair election.”
Rights groups say Cambodia's electoral system is riddled with major problems, including issues over voter registration lists, the use of civil servants and army personnel to campaign for the CPP, government control of mass media to slant the news, and intimidation against opposition figures and civil society monitors.
The opposition has also accused the National Election Committee, which oversees the polls, of lacking independence from the CPP and said the ruling party has pushed for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to be kept off the ballot.
Hun Sen has said he will try to stay in office for another decade, until he is 74. Rights groups say his continued rule will only worsen human rights violations and corruption and further suppress political freedoms.
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.