Cambodia faces July election without international observers

As threats and arrests continue, the EU says ‘inclusive, transparent’ conditions are not in place for vote.
By RFA Khmer
2023.03.31
Cambodia faces July election without international observers Foreign observers attend a conference with the National Election Committee of Cambodia (NEC), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2018.
Credit: Reuters

The United States, European Union, France and Japan say they have no plans to send electoral observers or to provide assistance to Cambodia’s election committee for July‘s general election.

The parliamentary election has been marred by threats and recent arrests of activists as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen work to silence and intimidate opposition figures. 

“France does not intend to send national observers to monitor the July elections,” the French Embassy in Cambodia said on Twitter on Wednesday. “We keep encouraging the establishment of a climate allowing the opposition, the media & civil society to function without hindrance, which is essential for fair & free elections.”

The United States isn’t providing assistance to the National Election Committee, but encourages a process “that is inclusive of all political stakeholders and in which all Cambodians can freely enjoy their political rights,” Embassy spokeswoman Stephanie Arzate said in response to a Radio Free Asia inquiry.

“We urge authorities to strengthen multiparty democracy in Cambodia by allowing opposing political views, fostering competition through inclusive free and fair elections, and promoting the free and open exchange of ideas,” she said.

Conditions in Cambodia for “holding inclusive, transparent and credible elections” are not in place, Barbara Plinkert, the EU’s Head of Division for Southeast Asia, told an EU subcommittee on March 21. That’s why the EU will not be sending observers, she said.

“We would need to send one already; we’d start preparation already six months before an election,” she told the EU Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights. “This has not happened and … the conditions need to be right in order to be able to meaningfully send an election observation mission.”

Looking back at 2018

Japan was the largest funder of Cambodia’s last general election, despite the fact that the country’s main opposition party – the Cambodia National Rescue Party – had been banned by the Supreme Court on unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in the 2017 commune elections.

Both the United States and EU withdrew donor support for the 2018 general elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy. 

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told the Phnom Penh Post in 2018 that the lack of EU or U.S. observers was unimportant, noting that in the 2013 general elections “they caused a lot of trouble.” 

But Cambodia did welcome election observers from Myanmar, Singapore and China in 2018. National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea said at the time that it wasn’t going to “differentiate between democratic or non-democratic countries” in considering international observers.

RFA couldn’t reach Hang Puthea for comment on Thursday. The committee is responsible for supervising elections in an impartial manner, but activists have claimed it often works on behalf of the CPP’s interests.

The NEC released a statement on Monday after a meeting between Japanese Ambassador Ueno Atsushi and NEC President Prach Chan that said the ambassador “was considering help” by sending observers to the election in July. 

But a spokesperson for Japan’s Embassy in Phnom Penh told news website Cambodianess that it has no plans to send official observers, although no final decision has been made and Japan may informally send people to several polling stations in July as ‘special guests.’”

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Thach Setha, vice president of Cambodia’s Candlelight Party, gestures while being transported to prison. Credit: Citizen journalist

Thach Setha’s bail request denied

Interior Minister Sar Kheng recently called publicly for a smooth and peaceful election. But activists from the Candlelight Party – now the main challenger to the ruling CPP – said in mid-March that police have been monitoring their meetings and local authorities have been defacing and stealing party signs and billboards. 

Candlelight Party activists in almost all provinces have reported cases of intimidation and harassment, and some people are now afraid to participate in non-ruling party activities, party spokesman Kim Sour Phirith said. 

On Thursday, an appeals court denied the bail request of Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha, who was arrested in January on charges of writing false checks – charges that opposition activists say are politically motivated.

The denial of the bail request is yet another indicator that Cambodia will not hold a legitimate election this year, said Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or Licadho.

Not having any international election observers in July would be “sad,” said the executive director of Cambodia’s top election watchdog, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

“It’s up to each country’s evaluation,” Sam Kuntheamy told RFA on Thursday. “But they might not have confidence that the election will be free and fair.”

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed publicly to rule the country until his death. Credit: AFP file photo

Hun Sen’s power grip

Meanwhile, Hun Sen vowed publicly to rule the country until his death. 

“Some people said Hun Sen is gripping power. I am accepting that,” he said at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh on Thursday. 

“What about you? You said you want to compete for power – what does that mean?” Hun Sen said, apparently referring to opposition party leaders. “I am only defending the power that I am having – there is nothing wrong with that. Why do you want to be the prime minister? You want to fight for prime minister and I am defending it.” 

Hun Sen has said he will run for re-election this year and will hand power to his son, Hun Manet, after the 2028 election, at which point he will have served as prime minister for 43 years. 

He has also said that he would continue in his role as CPP president after 2028, and would return to the prime minister post if his son doesn’t perform well. 

Political analyst Kim Sok said Hun Sen is only able to stay in power because of his use of force, intimidation and other non-electoral means. 

“If there is a free and fair election, he can’t cling to his power,” he said. “People won’t vote for him.” 

Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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