China will donate equipment to assist in Cambodia’s elections next year, including computers and ballot boxes, according to Cambodia’s top electoral body, weeks after the U.S. and EU withdrew support amid a crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
NGOs in Cambodia expressed concern Thursday over the plans, saying the Communist nation’s involvement undermines the ballots and calling instead for election officials to seek assistance from democratic governments.
In a statement posted to its website on Wednesday, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) listed planned donations from China that consisted of 30 different types of equipment, including computers, printers, photocopiers, cameras, ballot boxes, and voting booths.
The NEC was unable to confirm the cost of the equipment, but said China had pledged to provide the committee with additional assistance in coming months to “ensure that the next elections run smoothly, fairly, transparently, and with accountability.”
Cambodia will hold a Senate Election on Feb. 25 and a National Election on July 29, and plans to spend around U.S. $50 million organizing the two votes.
The statement followed announcements by the U.S. and EU that they had withdrawn funding for next year’s elections in response to a crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government on the CNRP, which saw its chief Kem Sokha arrested on charges of “treason” and the party dissolved for allegedly trying to incite a “rebellion” with Washington’s backing.
The U.S and EU said that Kem Sokha’s arrest and the dissolution of the CNRP had essentially eliminated any viable challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and called the legitimacy of the ballots into question.
On Thursday, NGOs urged Cambodia’s government to reconsider accepting the aid from China, which they said has little interest in upholding democratic standards, and instead seek assistance from the U.S. and EU—who have made Kem Sokha’s release, the reinstatement of the CNRP, and an end to recent restrictions on the media and civil society preconditions to their participation.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace (PDP), told RFA’s Khmer Service that Chinese electoral aid should end with supplies and funding.
“I’m afraid there will be issues if China provides technical assistance to the NEC as well,” he said.
“China’s involvement is not good for Cambodia, as China is a communist country that has no experience in democratic elections.”
Yong Kim Eng called on the government and the NEC to instead find support from democracies such as the U.S. and EU to promote the legitimacy and credibility of the elections.
Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) executive director Sam Kuntheamy noted that China was “quick to step in” after the U.S. and EU withdrew support.
But he said that China “doesn’t seem to care about the process of the elections, as long as they take place,” and suggested assistance is better sought elsewhere.
China is the largest source of foreign aid to Cambodia and has provided electoral support in the past, including equipment valued at U.S. $11 million for local elections held in June.
Hun Sen has repeatedly stated that Cambodia does not need any foreign nation to legitimize its elections, saying that it is “sufficient for Cambodians to recognize them.” The prime minister has also said that Cambodia will be able to fund the NEC to organize the ballots.
Last month, while addressing factory workers in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen urged the U.S. to cut the assistance to the NEC, saying such an act would be akin to “killing democracy in Cambodia.”
He also called on the U.S. to “cut all other assistance as well,” adding that by doing so “all local NGOs will die.”
“Just beware that those who die first are the local NGOs who are destroying [our country],” he said at the time.
Kan Savang, coordinator of election observers for the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said that the government’s crackdown on the opposition, media and NGOs had created a difficult situation for the country in the lead up to the elections.
“Free and fair elections are elections in which all stakeholders are allowed to participate freely,” he said.
“NGOs are monitoring very closely and we hope the current political situation will be resolved in order for the next elections to be conducted in a free and fair manner. We will need to observe further before we decide whether we should engage in the elections or not.”
The controversy over Beijing’s assistance in the elections comes as Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak confirmed that the royalist Funcinpec party will face no investigation for soliciting funding from China, despite an article in Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties which bans parties from receiving financial support from foreign governments and organizations.
Funcinpec President Norodom Ranariddh told reporters on Monday that he had requested financial assistance from Wang Weiguang, the president of the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He said Funcinpec had already received some equipment.
According to a report by the Phnom Penh Post, Funcinpec spokesman Nheb Bun Chhin denied the request was ever made, despite a recording of Norodom Ranariddh’s comments, and Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday that there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing.
The same law that was used to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged ties to a foreign government also bans political parties from receiving contributions from foreign institutions, companies, foreigners or organizations that are financed by foreign sources.
The Post quoted CPP spokesman Sok Eysan as saying that the situation was different from the CNRP’s because Funcinpec “aims to improve relations, solidarity and friendship to serve Cambodia,” whereas the CNRP “took a foreign plan … to topple the legal government.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.