More than one month after Cambodia’s commune elections, several opposition candidates who beat out ruling party incumbents for local councilor positions are reporting being blocked from accessing their new offices, in what some observers have called examples of political discrimination.
Cambodia’s June 4 ballot saw the largest reshuffle of local politicians since the country’s first election in 1993, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) losing nearly 500 commune chief positions to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), out of 1,646 nationwide.
On July 3—two weeks after the official election results were announced—the Ministry of the Interior held a ceremony to mark the handover of responsibilities to newly-elected councilors, as mandated under the country’s electoral laws, which it said had progressed “smoothly.”
But days later, the CNRP informed RFA’s Khmer Service that many of its elected chiefs had reported being blocked from accessing existing commune offices, lacking office space to take on their new responsibilities, and missing office materials that had been taken by their predecessors.
The CNRP has yet to compile data on the exact number of disputes, but has called on its new councilors to resolve their issues peacefully.
There is no law in Cambodia that dictates where commune chiefs should perform their duties, and the National Election Committee (NEC)—the country’s top electoral body—has said it is up to the Ministry of the Interior to investigate and resolve the quarrels.
On Monday, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak told RFA one reason for the delay in handovers may be that some commune chiefs have had to personally renovate their offices due to lack of funding from the central government, and feel they are entitled to keep them.
“We know that in the past not all commune offices were built by the state—some spaces were rented from residents’ homes, while others used space belonging to the ruling party,” he said.
“So we need to properly determine the root causes and shouldn’t immediately place the blame on those who disagree with handing over their office space. In some way, these people have their own reasons … so we must study each case and find out the real problem.”
Khieu Sopheak said that the government allocates funds from the national budget for local use to build commune offices in only 70 communes each year, forcing some commune chiefs to cover their own costs of arranging office space.
Last week, newly-elected CNRP chiefs from seven communes in Kampot province’s Chum Kiri district accused their CPP predecessors of locking them out of their offices, delaying the issuance of administrative documents to local constituents. The chiefs reported having to work out of conference rooms or “under trees” located in the vicinity.
A day later, Heng Lay Hour, the newly-elected CNRP councilor of Phnom Toch commune in Banteay Meanchey province’s Monkul Borey district, told RFA that the commune police station stopped renting its space used by the previous chief shortly before he assumed office, labeling the decision an act of “political discrimination.”
Also last week, newly-elected CPP and CNRP councilors, and their deputies, from at least eight of 15 communes in Kampot’s Banteay Meas district reported a lack of office space, saying they were forced to carry out their work in their own homes or in homes they had rented from residents.
Reports suggest that similar situations have occurred at communes in Preah Sihanouk and Stung Treng provinces.
Meng Sopheary, the CNRP’s head of election affairs and legislation, acknowledged that some commune offices had been built by predecessors through personal expense, but added that she believes many of the disputes are personal in nature.
“I think that since we have never witnessed such a huge reshuffle in the past, incumbent [commune chiefs] are used to performing their work at their own offices and when they have to hand over their responsibilities, they can’t immediately accept having to do so,” she said.
The CNRP, however, doesn’t expect that the disputes will have a negative effect on general elections set for next year, Meng Sopheary said, adding that by simply allowing the ballot to proceed, the country’s politicians have indicated their readiness to abide by the will of the voters.
Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) executive director Sam Kuntheamy, however, told RFA that his organization considers the office disputes examples of “powermania” on the part of commune chief predecessors, reluctant to give up their authority, and said that the Ministry of Interior must take a stronger stance.
“The Ministry of Interior is validating their position—this means that they continue to enjoy full and legitimate rights in managing their commune administration,” he said.
“In principle, parties that lose elections must hand over all their responsibilities to the new commune chiefs so that they can manage and ensure the sustainable operations of their commune.”
Reported by Moniroth Morm, Maly Leng, Hour Hum, and Vanndeth Van for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.