A leading human rights activist in Cambodia on Tuesday declined an offer to join the country’s reformed National Election Committee (NEC) as a ninth, neutral member in the electoral body otherwise split between members of the ruling and opposition political parties, calling the job “impossible.”
Pung Chhiv Kek, founder of local rights group Licadho, was offered the post on July 28, 2014, shortly after reforms to the NEC were first proposed, she said in a statement.
“At the time, the role of the ninth member was described to me as ‘an independent member who will bring to this institution the neutrality it needs to organize elections in conformity with the constitution and the national laws,’” Pung Chhiv Kek said.
“Today, I conclude that this task has become impossible.”
“Although it was a great honor to have been chosen for this very important position, I deeply regret that I have to decline the offer to be the ninth member of the new NEC,” she said.
“I apologize to my fellow compatriots who had faith in me and whom I may have disappointed.”
The invitation to Pung Chhiv Kek to join the reformed commission had followed a deal in July 2014 which saw opposition lawmakers return to the National Assembly, Cambodia’s parliament , after a 10-month boycott protesting a disputed national election the year before.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was declared victorious in the 2013 election, sparking widespread protests and allegations of government control of the NEC, which oversees polls in the country.
On March 19, 2015, Cambodia’s parliament unanimously approved a proposed law establishing a new NEC with nine members—four each from the CPP and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), together with a neutral ninth member to serve as tiebreaker.
A second law approved last week also amends Cambodia’s current election law. However, it contains provisions stipulating that local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Cambodia must remain neutral in elections and forbids them from participating in political campaigns, prompting complaints from rights groups and NGOs.
In a letter addressed to CNRP president Sam Rainsy, and released by the CPP to the public on Tuesday, Hun Sen confirmed that the two political adversaries had agreed in a telephone conversation two days before to select an alternative ninth member of the NEC.
The new candidate will be Hang Puthea, director of the independent Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), Hun Sen said, adding, “In order to continue this procedure, both parties will draft a formal letter to the National Assembly’s secretariat to affirm the agreement on the candidate.”
No CNRP statement on the selection of the new candidate was immediately available.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, Hang Puthea said that he had applied for the position on Monday after learning that Pung Chhiv Kek would decline the post.
“If I have the opportunity to serve as the ninth NEC member, I will contribute to a better election process in Cambodia,” he said.
Controversies over the recently passed election laws should not halt attempts at further reforms, he added.
“Laws are made by human beings, so we can undertake further reforms.”
“To have good laws, we will need more reforms that reflect social realities,” he said.
Pung Chhiv Kek meanwhile told RFA she would reconsider her refusal of the post on assurances that the new NEC will be allowed to operate independently of government control.
“I want to see those conditions written into the law,” she said. “For now, I am concerned.”
Nominations for the other eight positions on the NEC were opened last week, and officials from both parties have said they hope to establish the body before Khmer New Year, which begins on April 14.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.