Cambodia Investigating Former Opposition Members Over Election Boycott Campaign

The probe comes as the government rejects concerns over voter intimidation from a UN expert.

An official from Cambodia's National Election Committee uses a bottle of indelible ink to mark a finger during a briefing on the voting process in Phnom Penh, July 17, 2018.

Authorities in Cambodia are investigating members of the country’s now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), media reports said Monday, for organizing a boycott of this weekend’s election, which has been widely derided as unfree and unfair amid an ongoing political crackdown.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the 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 Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stays in power in Cambodia following the July 29 general election.

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

On Monday, Ven Porn, the head of the election committee in Battambang province, told Reuters news agency that a CPP official had lodged a complaint against some 30 CNRP members.

“We will investigate,” he said.

Chea Chiv, the former head of the CNRP in Battambang province, who was named in the complaint, told the media on Monday that boycotting the vote is not illegal, and that he would not cast a ballot for a party he does not like.

Hang Puthea, the spokesman for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)—the country’s top electoral body—told Agence France-Presse that local election officials in Battambang had received five complaints over the boycott campaign, and confirmed that the accused could face up to U.S. $5,000 in fines if found guilty following an investigation.

A day earlier, Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng said during a campaign event in Battambang that the authorities would fine anyone who posts a picture of themselves online supporting a boycott with a “clean finger”—referencing the India ink voters dip their index finger into to show they have cast their ballot—between U.S. $1,250 and $5,000.

“The more they do it, the more we will fine them,” he said, although he acknowledged that the law does not allow for their arrest.

Vague terms

Observers said Monday that the government sought to take advantage of vague terms in the electoral law to punish those who abstain from voting on Sunday.

“To vote, as stated in the constitution is a ‘right,’ not an ‘obligation’—therefore it is not illegal if a Cambodian does not cast his or her vote, or tells others not to vote,” lawyer Choung Choungy told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“Based on the principle of ‘nullum crimen sine lege’ (‘no crime without law’), there is no such crime as ‘preventing people from exercising their right to vote’ simply by calling on others not to vote.”

On the other hand, he said, it is illegal to threaten people with legal consequences if they refuse to vote.

Lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA that merely appealing to others not to vote is not equivalent to preventing them from casting their ballot.

“It is their right to say so, because they are not [physically] preventing people from going to vote,” he said.

“It is simply an expression of opinion, as long as they don’t hold people back from walking to the voting booth.”

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA that statements such as the one made by Sar Kheng over the weekend constitute an “abuse of power.”

“A threat of fine or punishment, when there is no law to justify it, is an abuse of power when committed by a civil servant,” he said.

“To stop such acts, the people should exercise their rights and challenge the authorities.”

Social media users also took umbrage at official threats over the “clean finger” campaign.

Touch Samnang, a Facebook user in Stung Treng province who has posted “clean finger” photos online, questioned why the ruling party was acting “paranoid” about the campaign.

“Why are they so afraid of a finger?” he asked.

“They have dissolved our party, so we have nothing left but our right to an opinion. We are not happy about the election and we want to show that we do not support it without the opposition … We are not preventing others from voting and we are not inciting anyone.”

Kong Raiya, a student activist who served 18 months in prison for “incitement” after he called on Cambodians to mount a “color revolution” in a social media post, and who has also posted photos of himself displaying a “clean finger,” also dismissed Sar Kheng’s warning.

“The authorities are abusing the law—it’s too extreme to fine people for just posting a picture showing their index finger as a way to express their rights and opinions,” he said.

Concerns rejected

Reports of the investigation into the boycott complaints came as Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lashed out at the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith after she expressed concerns over reports of voter intimidation in the lead up to the election.

In a statement posted to the Facebook page of the U.N’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia last week, Smith had 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 vote.

She also pointed to reports that local authorities have threatened to withhold public services from those who do not vote for the ruling party.

On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs slammed Smith’s remarks, saying in a statement that they “merit several questions due to their substantive bias and prejudice in the context of electoral sensitivity,” and suggesting she is supportive of the CNRP’s efforts to “sabotage a democratic contest” by encouraging a boycott.

The ministry suggested that Smith had lost sight of the “dangerous populism” of the CNRP, which it said had called for military rebellion against the government, instigated anti-China sentiment, incited racial hatred and xenophobia, and provoked ultra-nationalism jeopardizing peaceful relations with Cambodia’s neighbors.

It lamented that the Special Rapporteur had never publicly denounced the CNRP for its “undemocratic conducts,” adding that “fair and objective observation of the electoral process should underline the nature of an unhealthy opposition which aims to disrupt the hard-earned peace, political stability and development in Cambodia.”

The ministry ended its statement by saying that Cambodia’s citizens are guaranteed the right to all public services under the country’s constitution, regardless of political affiliation and social status.

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 recently, in what is seen as an intimidation tactic and a violation of Cambodia’s electoral laws.

The U.S. and European Union have already withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.