UN Expert Decries Voter Intimidation in Lead-up to Cambodia Election

Rhona Smith cites threats of legal action and withholding public services to influence the ballot.

United Nations human rights envoy Rhona Smith speaks to the press at her office in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, Oct. 19, 2016.

The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith on Friday expressed concern over reports of voter intimidation in the lead up to a general election this month that has been widely derided as unfree and unfair amid an ongoing political crackdown in the country.

In a statement posted to the Facebook page of the U.N’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia, Smith highlighted reports of government representatives stating that abstaining from voting was illegal and that fines would be imposed on people messaging about a boycott of the July 29 election.

She also pointed to reports that local authorities have threatened to withhold public services from those who do not vote for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

“This only creates a climate of fear and confusion,” Smith said.

“I welcome recent government calls to local authorities to avoid discrimination during the campaign and encourage the government to condemn in very clear terms voter intimidation and to clarify that calling for a boycott in a non-compulsory vote is permitted.”

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November over allegations it was involved in a plot to topple the government, stripping the party’s officials of their posts and banning many lawmakers from politics for five years.

The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha, as well as a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, are measures widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that the CPP stays in power in Cambodia following the general election.

The CNRP has called on Cambodians to boycott this month’s ballot in protest over its dissolution, but the government has responded by warning that doing so is in direct violation of the country’s electoral laws and will be dealt with in court.

In the meantime, reports have surfaced of violations committed by pro-CPP groups during the country’s campaign period, including one earlier this week which alleged that ruling party agents had threatened to end public services for indigenous residents of Mondulkiri province unless they vote for the party in the election.

Chuong Choungy, a lawyer who has represented members of the CNRP in what are seen as politically motivated cases brought against them by the government, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday that choosing to stay away from the polls on July 29 is legal according to Cambodia’s constitution and criminal code.

“There is no law that states it is a crime if voters don’t vote,” he said.

Earlier this week, when asked about the possibility of voter fraud in Mondulkiri province, Hang Puthea, the spokesman for the National Election Committee (NEC)—Cambodia’s top electoral body—told RFA that he had not received any complaints and was therefore unable to act.

But NGOs said that threatening to withhold public services from those who refuse to cast a ballot for a specific party is unlawful, and suggested that the NEC should examine the claims.

Aggressive campaigning

Even with a ban in place against the CNRP, the CPP has aggressively courted votes—including outside of the official campaign period—and deployed senior members of the security forces to publicly endorse Hun Sen, New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week, in what is seen as an intimidation tactic and a violation of Cambodia’s electoral laws.

Allegations of threats against voters and Human Rights Watch’s claims came a week after Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh banned military officers from using security vehicles and equipment to campaign ahead of the election.

NGOs had welcomed Tea Banh’s directive and called on authorities to enforce it, noting that in past elections, military vehicles and equipment were used to campaign despite similar bans, with offenders removing insignias so that members of the public did not know whether they belonged to the government or the security forces.

Ahead of 2013’s general election, NGOs slammed unfair competition during the campaign period, saying government officials and civil servants had used state resources while stumping for their party.

Last month, election observers accused Hun Sen of acting in breach of Cambodia’s electoral laws by urging people to vote for him in the upcoming general ballot outside of the official campaign period.

Hun Sen has called for Cambodians to support him at the polls at nearly every public appearance he has made—including while speaking at events for factory workers, students, and civil servants—despite a law that allows campaigning only between July 7 and 27.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.