Watchdog Urges Caution For Would-Be Observers to Cambodia’s Election

NGOs say they will wait until the deadline for candidates to register to decide if they will participate.

Then-president of the CNRP Sam Rainsy meets international observers for Cambodia's general election at his party headquarters in Phnom Penh, July 27, 2013.

An electoral watchdog in Cambodia has cautioned would-be international observers to think twice before accepting an invitation to participate in the country’s upcoming general ballot, which is expected to be neither free nor fair amid a ban on the main opposition party.

On Wednesday, the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) issued a press release welcoming prospective observers to register for the July 29 vote by submitting an application between April 23 and July 25.

The committee noted that only “international NGOs, international organizations and various countries that are invited and accredited” by the government or NEC will be eligible to take part in observation, and that they will be required to submit a report on their conclusions following the completion of the electoral process.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told Reuters News Agency Wednesday that potential observers should be aware of the political situation in Cambodia before signing on to participate in July’s ballot.

“They should be more cautious in responding to the invitation,” he said.

“Many of them have standards on prerequisite principles for their engagement decision.”

The invitation follows the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November on allegations the party engaged in a plot to topple the government, and comes amid an ongoing crackdown on NGOs and the media—actions widely seen as part of a bid by Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power for another term.

Earlier, Comfrel’s coordinator for election observers Kan Savang told RFA’s Khmer Service that his organization will wait until May 14—the registration deadline for political parties and candidates—to decide whether it will take part in the election.

He called on Cambodia’s political leaders to “resume talks as soon as possible to create a favorable environment for a free and fair election,” noting that donors such as the U.S. and EU had withdrawn electoral aid because they said the vote lacks legitimacy, absent the CNRP.

“We are currently frustrated by the lack of funding and resources due to international sanctions,” he added.

Kan Savang’s concerns were echoed by Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), who told RFA his organization would also wait until after the registration deadline to decide whether to join the election.

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan on Wednesday said Cambodia’s ballot is on track to proceed, whether or not NGO observers take part.

“For those civil society organizations that are waiting to see if there is any negation between the ruling party and the opposition, I think they will have to wait forever,” he said.

“The idea of a possible negotiation is just wishful thinking—it will never happen. Whether there are observers from the NGOs or not the election will surely proceed as planned.”

CNRM summoned

Also on Wednesday, RFA obtained a copy of a summons sent by Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Sieng Sok to the six founders of the Cambodian National Rescue Movement (CNRM), which was established in January in response to the dissolution of the CNRP, and which the government has labelled illegal.

Those summoned include former CNRP president and CNRM president Sam Rainsy, his wife—CNRP lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang, and CNRP lawmakers Ho Vann, Tok Vanchan and Nuth Rumduol. All six people left Cambodia after the CNRP was banned and are living in self-imposed exile in France and the U.S. to avoid what are seen as politically motivated court cases.

The summonses, dated March 30, are identical and accuse the six of “attempting to overthrow the legitimate government” and other crimes—much like accusations made last year against the CNRP and its officials.

In the document, the court demands that they appear from May 22-30 for questioning related to “forming the CNRM, inciting chaos in society, affecting national security, and attempting to overthrow the legitimate government of Cambodia.”

Ho Vann told RFA that he was not surprised by the summons, noting that any effort to “reinstate the CNRP and restore true democracy to Cambodia” is met with similar allegations from the government.

“We strongly dismiss all allegations that we are traitors—we have never committed any acts that warrant such accusations,” he said.

“We love our country. That’s why we have formed this movement to rescue our nation and people.”

The Phnom Penh Post quoted Chhay Eang as saying he has no plans to honor the summons, calling Cambodia’s justice system a “tool of Hun Sen,” while Sam Rainsy suggested the document was “probably another expedient invention by a paranoid Hun Sen's CPP.”

Banned from visits

Meanwhile, Am Sam Ath, the head of investigations for rights group Licadho, blasted Cambodia’s government Wednesday for “violating the rights” of Meach Sovannara, the CNRP’s former media director, after the General Department of Prisons (GDP) of the Ministry of Interior denied a request by CNRP lawmakers to meet with him.

Meach Sovannara and 15 other CNRP members are serving a term of up to 20 years in Prey Sar Prison on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital in 2014.

On Tuesday, the GDP issued a letter stating that Meach Sovannara is “grounded for breaking the internal regulations of the prison,” referring to accusations by Hun Sen that he was communicating with people outside of Prey Sar using a smart phone. Prison authorities found no cellphone during a subsequent search of Meach Sovannara’s cell, but said he was using a television to send messages.

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