UN Envoy Says Electoral Threats Create ‘Atmosphere of Intimidation’ in Cambodia

Rhona Smith says the comments from government officials ‘have no place’ in society.

Rhona Smith (R) and Wan-Hea Lee (L), the OHCHR’s country representative to Cambodia, speak to reporters during a press conference held at the OHCHR office in Phnom Penh, Aug. 18, 2017.

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith expressed concerns over an “atmosphere of intimidation” surrounding recent elections, warning that the country was “approaching a precipice” as she concluded an official visit there Friday.

Prime Minister Hun Sen repeatedly warned of civil war should his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lose commune elections held in June and a general election set for July next year, while other government officials have threatened violence against anyone who protests results of the ballots.

The CPP won the June 4 commune elections, but the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the ruling party’s 51 percent, in an outcome that many see as a bellwether for next year’s ballot.

Speaking at a press conference Friday in the capital Phnom Penh marking the end of a 10-day visit to Cambodia, Smith applauded the voter registration process and peaceful nature of the June vote, but said she is troubled by “the atmosphere of intimidation and threats of violence, including by high level officials, in the lead up to the election and in the weeks which have followed.”

“Notwithstanding the relative success of the commune/sangkat elections, I remain concerned over the violent rhetoric expressed by members of the Government and the military,” she said.

“Such comments should not be made by Government ministers, even in private. They have no place in a peaceful society, such as Cambodia, which still bears the scars of its turbulent history,” she added, referring to the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, when some 2 million people died from mass murder, starvation and overwork.

Smith also called on Hun Sen’s government to end a campaign of legal action against opposition politicians, allegations of violations of political neutrality against NGOs, pre-trial sentencing, intimidation and fear, which she said was “not compatible with an environment conducive to free elections.”

“The general situation in the country remains tense. Cambodia appears to be approaching a precipice,” she said.

“It is my hope that moving forward, Cambodia will retreat from the precipice with no more threats of violence, quelling insurrections or war, or racial inflammatory statements.”

Government response

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that Cambodia could not accept Smith’s assessment and said the rights envoy had yet to understand the country.

“[Rhona Smith] should not have set foot on Cambodian soil and made such comments,” he said, adding that “many organizations have recently said that Cambodia is making a good progress.”

Phay Siphan said that the government’s job is to enforce the country’s laws in order to maintain public order, and the statements Smith referred to in her comments do not constitute threats against those who oppose it.

“With regard to what had been said by our dignitaries, she deemed the words as ‘violent’ because she clearly does not understand Khmer culture,” he said.

“[Her views] are a misrepresentation of what they intended to say … In the Khmer context, we say ‘be cautious or you will be beaten with a stick, or with a bamboo pole or one of your teeth will be broken!’ Such words are just words of warning—not threats.”

During her fourth official visit to Cambodia since her appointment in March 2015, Smith met with a wide range of stakeholders throughout society, including government officials, civil society organizations, political party leadership, and victims of human rights abuse in several provinces.

On Friday she also highlighted key challenges faced by marginalized groups in the country, including children, indigenous persons, the homeless, drug users, and asylum seekers.

She is expected to present her findings and update on the situation on human rights in Cambodia to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in September.

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