The Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), a respected independent vote monitor, will not sign up observers for July’s parliamentary elections in face of government restrictions on NGO activities, a senior election observer told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday.
Senior Comfrel election observer Korn Savang said the decision not to deploy monitors to observe the July 29 parliamentary elections stems from the government’s closure last year of the “Situation Room” group of 40 NGO election monitors, which followed accusations that Comfrel and likeminded organizations were trying to promote a “Color Revolution” in Cambodia.
"We are merely monitoring whether there are any threats in connection with human rights issues as normally. We won’t deploy observers as in the past, which involved up to hundreds of thousands of observers,” said Korn Savang.
“We have only two to three hundred observers to monitor the situation from the outset. We won’t register them with the National Election Commission. We will just observe as normal citizens,” he added.
In July 2017, Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng issued official letter notifying Comfrel and other groups leading the Situation Room cluster of election monitoring NGOs that their activities contradicted to the provisions of the Law on NGOs and Associations.
Comfrel director Koul Panha fled Cambodia last year after authorities disbanded the Situation Room, an early step in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown on Cambodia’s opposition, NGOs and the independent media as part of what observers say is a bid to ensure his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stays in power following the July 29 election.
In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service in early April, Koul Panha questioned the legitimacy of the July 29 election in the absence of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November after Hun Sen alleged that it was plotting to topple his government. Two months earlier, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested on treason charges and the party was accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Koul Panha had said Comfrel would wait until the May 14 deadline for political parties to register before deciding whether it would participate as a monitor in the upcoming vote, and also urged would-be international observers to be aware of the political situation in Cambodia before accepting an invitation from NEC—the country’s official electoral body—to do the same.
Monday’s deadline passed with only four political parties having officially registered with the NEC to contest elections in July, prompting government authorities to grant another five days to allow 16 others to complete required paperwork. The four parties now officially set to compete include the ruling CPP and three smaller, little-known parties.
The CNRP’s former president Sam Rainy, living in exile, has urged supporters to shun the polls in July to avoid legitimizing what is expected to be a blowout victory for the ruling party in an election that is neither free nor fair.
Hun Sen has repeatedly urged Cambodians to show up for the ballot and he has lashed out at calls by Sam Rainsy for voters to boycott the upcoming general ballot, saying that it was a violation of electoral law.
In December, the NEC warned of 5-20 million-riel fines (U.S. $1,240-$4,950) and “other criminal punishment” for those “sowing distrust of the election” after RFA’s Khmer Service reported on low turnout for voter registration following the dissolution of the CNRP.
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the CPP ahead of July.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.