The National Election Committee (NEC), Cambodia’s top electoral body, on Monday hit out at calls to boycott the country’s upcoming general ballot, threatening action against detractors who dissuade the public from voting.
In a letter referring to “certain individuals” that had called on voters and international monitors to shun the July 29 election, the NEC noted that election observers are supposed to remain neutral and said that anyone who prevents people from casting their ballots in the July election would be subject to fines under electoral law.
“Over the past several days, the NEC has noted that some individuals are calling for people and national and international observers to be more cautious before engaging in the election of July 29, 2018,” the letter said.
“The NEC is calling [on these people] to stop their activities, appeals to all voters to go to vote and appeals to all local and international monitors to register for observing the election,” the statement reads.
In remarks made to the Phnom Penh Post, NEC spokesman Dim Sovannarom would not provide details about who the letter referred to, and said that despite references to fines, the committee had no plans to take legal action.
“The NEC is not a political institution … It is a legal and technical institution,” he said.
The NEC’s letter followed a call over the weekend by Sam Rainsy, the former president of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on Cambodians to refrain from voting in July if the main opposition party is refused the right to register for the election and put forth candidates.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Sunday, Sam Rainsy also urged national and international monitors to “refrain from ‘observing’ an electoral farce with a foregone conclusion.”
Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, was arrested last September on charges of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government, and the Supreme Court followed in November with a decision to dissolve the party for its role in his alleged plot, stripping officials of their posts and banning 118 of them from politics for five years.
The crackdown on the opposition, as well as a broader attack on NGOs and the media, is believed to be part of a bid by Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power for another term following the election, which observers expect will be neither free nor fair.
Cambodian electoral watchdogs also cautioned would-be international monitors last week to think twice before accepting an NEC invitation to observe the ballot, and said they will wait until the deadline for parties to register for the election to determine whether they would participate.
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes, accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters, in Cambodia’s last general election in 2013, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot.
After the election in 2013, the CPP and CNRP agreed to reform the NEC to make the body more balanced, with four members from each party and a ninth, neutral member. However, three CNRP members resigned after their party was dissolved last year.
Despite mounting international concerns over Hun Sen’s crackdown on the opposition, Japan—which along with the EU is the largest funder of Cambodia’s 2018 elections—has said it has no intention to curtail aid ahead of the vote.
On Sunday, Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Kono traveled to Phnom Penh to meet with Hun Sen and signed deals with Kono’s counterpart, Prak Sokhonn, granting Cambodia more than U.S. $4.6 million in assistance and a loan of U.S. $86 million.
While the Japanese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Kono raised the issue of election participation with Hun Sen, several media reports said he urged the prime minister to hold a free and fair election—echoing Japan’s consistent stance since the CNRP was dissolved.
The U.S. announced in February that it was ending or curtailing several U.S. Treasury Department, USAID, and American military assistance programs that support Cambodia’s taxation department, local governments, and military.
Washington cited recent setbacks to democracy in Cambodia, including Senate elections in which the CPP took all seats in an uncontested vote held just over three months after the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP.
That same month, the EU threatened Cambodia’s government with “specific targeted measures” if it failed to stop using the judiciary as a “political tool” to harass and intimidate political opponents, civil society, labor rights activists, and human rights defenders.
Last month, Embassy of Japan counselor Hironori Suzuki told RFA’s Khmer Service that while Tokyo had been conveying its concerns to Hun Sen’s government, given the escalation of political tension in Cambodia, “it is of utmost importance to have the national election scheduled in July reflect the will of Cambodian people properly.”
Suzuki said that Japan has been “encouraging Cambodian stakeholders, including the Government, to realize dialogue among domestic people involved in politics and to ensure the environment in which the rights of all political people and civil society organizations are respected and they can carry out legitimate activities.”
But Cambodia’s government has repeatedly ruled out negotiations with the CNRP, including as recently as Wednesday, when CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said that dialogue between the parties was impossible because the opposition had “made a big mistake.”
Cambodian political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA on Monday that he expects Japan’s assistance will “soften” the election atmosphere, but ruled out that Cambodia’s government would allow the reestablishment of the CNRP ahead of the vote.
“I think the development assistance will result in at least some political solution soon, such as a lifting of the ban on the 118 CNRP officials,” he said.
“If there is any political solution, I believe it would happen only much closer to the election. Nonetheless, I am not optimistic that the CNRP would be allowed to participate as a political party in the upcoming vote.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.