EU Halts Funding to Cambodia’s National Election Committee

Financial assistance to the organization is suspended because of the government’s breakup of the main opposition political party.

A Cambodian voter drops a ballot in a ballot box during commune/sangkat council elections in an electoral district in the town of Takhmao in southeastern Cambodia's Kandal province, June 4, 2017.

The European Union on Tuesday said it is suspending financial assistance to Cambodia’s National Election Committee, citing the dissolution of the main opposition party by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of general elections next year.

The EU stressed that because the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been “arbitrarily excluded,” the general elections in July 2018 “cannot be seen as legitimate.”

On Nov. 16, Cambodia’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the CNRP be dissolved for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government. The move banned 118 party officials from politics for five years and essentially eliminated any competition to Hun Sen.

The EU said it was “glad” to support the electoral process that led to Cambodia’s commune/sangkat (villages) council elections on June 4, which it said “were widely recognized as having been professionally run” by the NEC and “having reached high standards of transparency and credibility.”

“Since then, however, a series of actions has been taken by the authorities against the main opposition party…” the EU’s brief statement said.

“The decisions to dissolve the CNRP, and the subsequent reallocation of its National Assembly and commune/sangkat seats to other parties denies the choice of those who voted for the party in the elections of 2013 and 2017,” it said.

Som Sorida, deputy secretary-general of the NEC, which oversees national elections in Cambodia, responded to the announcement by pointing out that the committee has already budgeted enough funds, materials, and human resources to prepare for both Senate and National Assembly elections next year, and that the government has already approved the spending packages.

He told the government-linked Fresh News that China, a staunch supporter of Hun Sen’s government, will serve as the main provider of assistance to the NEC should it encounter any financial difficulties in the run-up to the vote.

The amount of funding provided by the EU ahead of the elections is insignificant, he said, adding that the bloc provided only U.S. $5 million for the commune council elections earlier this year. The EU had pledged U.S. $12 million for election preparations for this year and 2018.

George Edgar, EU ambassador to Cambodia, said during International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 that respect for human rights and democratic principles are considered key elements of cooperation agreements between the EU and Cambodia.

Cambodian political analyst Meas Ny said the EU’s decision indicates its dissatisfaction with the political crackdown by the Cambodian government.

With no funding for election monitoring from the EU, the 2018 elections will be vulnerable to irregularities, and the independence of the NEC will be called into question, he said.

“Any government formed after such an election will not be legitimately honored in the international arena,” Meas Ny told RFA’s Khmer Service. “Hence, this will make the [government] severely dependent upon China.”

Once the ruling CPP is totally dependent upon China, the party’s popularity will wane, he said.

Smith weighs in

In a related development, Rhona Smith, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, called on Monday for the restoration of multiparty democracy and the assurance of freedom for civil society and the media to operate in the country.

Smith expressed concern about the dissolution of the CNRP and warned that restricting Cambodians’ voices could “ultimately threaten the stability” in Cambodia.

"This has denied a significant portion of the population of their right to take part in public affairs through their freely chosen representatives," Smith said in a statement.

She noted that CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the CPP, remains in prison, while several other CNRP members have fled the country because of intimidation by authorities and pressure to switch their party affiliation to the CPP.

The government has also silenced independent media outlets critical of it and restricted the activities of international and domestic NGOs.

“With general elections due in July 2018, I call on the government to restore the space for any Cambodians to exercise the right to stand for election without fear or intimidation,” Smith said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) walks toward to the Cambodia-Vietnam border during the 40th anniversary of his decision to defect from the Khmer Rouge army and cross into Vietnam, in central Cambodia's Tboung Khmum province, June 21, 2107. Credit: AFP
Army neutrality

Hun Sen on Monday reaffirmed that his armed forces would definitely protect his government and said that there is no “army neutrality” principle for his government or the state in response to remarks by former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who recently encouraged soldiers to stop listening to the prime minister and to commanders’ orders to shoot and kill innocent civilians.

Sam Rainsy was CNRP president until went into exile in November 2015 in the face of arrest warrants issued by courts beholden to Hun Sen.

“We must make it clear that the army’s neutrality does not exist in relation to the state, political parties, and civil society,” Hun Sen told attendees at the inauguration of a training school for military espionage and intelligence professionals on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

“The [army’s] neutrality only exists equally among political parties taking part in democratic elections,” he said. “Yet, when it comes to the violation of state laws, the army will stay on the side of the state to protect the state, and such [illegal] activities will never be allowed to occur.”

In July, Cambodian political analyst Ros Ravuth warned that if a national army aligns itself politically, it will forfeit its neutrality, and such action could prompt a military coup if an opposition party wins future elections.

Color revolutions

Hun Sen went on to say that army neutrality will not exist for any political party that stages a “color revolution” to try to overthrow his government. He accused the West of trying to stage such an event in Cambodia.

Color revolutions refer to a series of popular movements that used nonviolent protests under colored banners to topple governments in countries of the former Soviet Union during the 2000s.

Hun Sen, who has made previous speeches about suppressing those who would like to start a color revolution aimed at toppling his administration, also said that in countries where the revolutions have occurred, efforts were made to ensure army’s neutrality so that the overthrow would be successful.

Some political analysts say Hun Sen’s accusations against the West are nonsense and are only a pretext by the ruling party to show to voters that the prime minister is a good leader who has successfully prevented a color revolution from occurring in Cambodia.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay called Hun Sen’s comments about a color revolution groundless, and said that he is using them as a pretext to crack down on those who oppose him.

He also noted that there is no existing law that stipulates that the army will not be allowed to take a stance of neutrality. Instead, the law requires the army to remain neutral when performing its duties and prohibits it from engaging in activities that directly benefit or oppose any political parties or candidates.

“The issue is that our commander-in-chief and commanders of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are members of the [ruling] party, and most of them serve as senior members,” he told RFA.

Because Hun Sen serves as CPP president and a member of the National Assembly, he must suspend his role as commander-in-chief to serve civilian affairs, Lao Mong Hay said.

In genuinely democratic countries that uphold the rule of law, the powers of the government are determined by law, and the head of government cannot do anything according to his own will, he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.