Cambodia’s Capital Calm Amid Election Campaign Restrictions

cambodia-kem-sokha-preah-sihanouk-campaign-may-2017-crop.jpg CNRP president Kem Sokha speaks during a campaign event at the party's headquarters in Preah Sihanouk province, May 21, 2017.

The third day of campaigning ahead of commune elections remained relatively quiet Monday in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh amid tight restrictions by the country’s electoral body, while civil society groups urged parties to refrain from using rhetoric that could lead to political violence.

Yang Kim Eng—a contributor to the Situation Room group of civil society organizations (CSOs) that includes the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Licadho, and Adhoc—told RFA’s Khmer Service that National Election Committee (NEC) regulations had kept political party gatherings calm in the capital, compared with previous campaign periods.

“The rallies are small due to NEC restrictions … [on] both the form of campaigns and materials used during those campaigns,” he said.

“For instance, one car, a motorbike and a couple of tuktuk tricycles with more than 10 people using loudspeakers to spread a political message is considered a rally.”

The NEC placed no restrictions on the size or number of rallies during the lead up to elections in previous years, but on May 19 issued rules limiting public rallies to two days during 2017’s campaign period, which began a day later, prompting objections form opposition parties and CSOs.

Yang Kim Eng said that the 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats across the country on June 4 “dared not” stage multiple large cross-commune rallies for fear of not being allowed to hold them on the final day of the 14-day campaign period.

On May 20, thousands of supporters from both the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had flooded the streets of the capital to mark the beginning of the campaign period.

But each of the six political parties vying for seats within Phnom Penh staged only a “small march” in each of the city’s communes on day three of campaigns, he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP—which staged a major rally at the capital’s Koh Pich Convention Center on May 22—did not hold a gathering on Monday, and instead arranged kiosks at several major boulevards and at its various commune offices around the city.

The CNRP held a small rally with marches and tuktuks in each commune within Phnom Penh, distributing stickers and discussing its platform and plans for local development to residents along the way.

The four remaining parties—FUNCINPEC, the Khmer National United Party, the League for Democracy, and the Beehive Social Democratic Party—did little campaigning in the capital Monday.

Meas Chhorporn, the chairperson of the Phnom Penh Election Campaign, told RFA that there had been no disputes related to campaigning in the capital since May 20, and commended political parties for maintaining “a sound environment” while holding their events.

“There have been no major challenges for us to resolve,” he said.

Campaign rhetoric

On Monday, COMFREL investigation coordinator Korn Savang called on political parties to show restraint and refrain from using insults and threats against one another that could lead to violence during the campaign period, urging the NEC to take action against offenders.

“For civil society, we believe that any messages intended to intimidate or threaten are illegal,” he told RFA.

“The NEC should take measures, such as warning or advising parties concerned, in accordance with its stipulated procedures.”

On May 14, defense minister Tea Banh had warned that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting an election win by the CPP and quickly suppress any demonstrations by CNRP members like those that followed the opposition’s loss in national elections in 2013.

Hun Sen has also made several references in recent months to civil war if the public does not support his CPP in local elections on June 4.

While observers view such statements as intimidation tactics by the ruling party, the NEC has said it has no authority to act because the threats were made ahead of the campaign period.

On the first day of the campaign, however, co-chairperson for the CPP’s Prey Kabas district working group in Takeo province was quoted by local media accusing the CNRP of inciting its supporters and activists to cause “social chaos,” and said the opposition had never done so much as “build a toilet” for the people of Cambodia.

“The commune council election on June 4 is one of peace or war, development or tragedy, prosperity or death,” he said at the time.

And on May 21, the CPP expressed anger over a CNRP supporter who posted a video clip on her “Pey Pey Ly” Facebook account suggesting the ruling party had hired Vietnamese citizens to bolster the ranks of its rallies because Cambodians will no longer vote for it in exchange for petty gifts.

NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea on Monday said that the committee had not investigated either of the two cases because “no complaint had been lodged” for either incident, adding that it is currently looking into other “more immediate” cases, and urging all political parties to comply with campaign procedures.

“The NEC has a department for monitoring all content and forms of the election campaign,” he said.

“The NEC cannot work at the same time as both judge and plaintiff for a complaint, since it may cause confusion,” he added.

On May 20, U.S. State Department spokeswoman for East Asia Alicia Edwards said Washington had urged Cambodia’s government to “guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation” and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens, according to a report by the Associated Press.

CNRP lawmaker and spokesperson Yim Sovann said Monday that the statement was issued to “encourage Cambodian citizens to be brave and confident, and realize that only an election can solve the nation’s most important issues.”

Local ban

Concerns over campaign practices came as Huong Chamnab, a CNRP candidate for Orussey commune’s Kapo village, in Kratie province’s Kratie city, told RFA that local authorities had prevented residents who previously accepted CPP gifts from participating in the campaign events of other parties.

“They did not allow those people who had accepted [CPP] gifts to take part in the opposition party’s [campaign activities],” he said, referring to a May 21 event held in Orussey, during which CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay explained the party’s platform to around 300 attendees.

“This is a threat, because citizens should be allowed to listen to the political messages of all political parties for their own consideration. We consider such a ban as a threat.”

Huong Chamnab said the CNRP’s local working group had already reported the matter to the Commune Election Committee (CEC), but had yet to lodge a formal complaint.

Attempts to contact Kapo village chief Ros Chheng for clarification went unanswered Monday.

Tonn Dara, vice-chairperson of the Kratie Provincial Election Committee, confirmed that the CEC had yet to receive a complaint over the allegations, but said blocking residents from taking part in campaign activities is considered a breach of the law.

“If such an incident truly occurred, it is against the law and legal procedures,” he said.

“It could lead to a charge of obstruction and punishment.”

COMFREL’s Korn Savang told RFA that village authorities should not use their power to obstruct citizens from taking part in any campaign events, even if such obstruction is verbal, as it constitutes a violation of their rights.

“Legally, citizen participation must not be obstructed or forced by any individual,” he said.

“Such activities are illegal and should be punished accordingly.”

Campaign promises

Also on Monday, CNRP president Kem Sokha promised to abolish the Ministry of Rural Development and allocate U.S. $500,000 from the national budget to each commune across the country if his party wins the general election slated for 2018.

On the second day of a two-day campaign tour through communes in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces, the opposition chief told supporters that the Ministry of Rural Development had failed to deliver to the people of Cambodia, despite “spending lavishly” from the country’s budget.

“This doesn’t mean that when the CNRP wins the election, the party will carry out revenge against the losers,” he said.

“A CNRP victory means a victory for all Khmers—a win-win for both sides. All Khmers will live harmoniously together.”

Kem Sokha also promised “change” for the communes he visited during his campaign trip, saying that by electing CNRP candidates residents would replace “unclean commune chiefs” with “uncorrupted and nonpartisan ones,” who would work to address the difficulties they endure.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA that Kem Sokha’s plan to abolish the Ministry of Rural Development would destroy Cambodians’ livelihoods, and reverse development and progress for farmers in rural areas.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible opposition win in next year’s national elections.

Reported by Vanndeth Van, Sothearin Yeang, Chanthy Men, and Yuthea Touch for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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