Cambodia’s government plans to deploy more than 100,000 security personnel and “village guards” at polling stations across the country during the upcoming general election, according to officials, drawing concerns from observers who suggested such a show of force would intimidate voters in a poll in which the ruling party is the only significant political group on the ballot.
Last week, National Election Committee (NEC) secretary general Tep Nytha told reporters that 84,583 members of the security forces will be posted at various polling stations throughout the nation to provide “security protection services” during the July 29 ballot.
The rollout represents a significant increase over that of the country’s June 2017 commune elections, when 51,578 security personnel were deployed in groups that included more than 33,000 police, nearly 3,000 military police and more than 4,000 soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).
On Wednesday, the website of the General Commissariat of the National Police published a statement from its spokesman Kiet Chantharith saying in addition to the more than 80,000 security personnel announced by the NEC last week, the government plans to deploy more than 20,000 “village guards” to provide security during the election.
At a training session on election-related laws, regulations and procedures, and code of conduct for security personnel, Kiet Chantharith said that all officers working to protect the ballot must “clearly understand their roles … so that the environment on Election Day will proceed smoothly, freely, fairly, and justly, and without intimidation or threat.”
Kan Savang, of local electoral watchdog Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that such a large deployment of security personnel was unnecessary, noting that according to the country’s election laws, only one armed guard is required outside of each polling station, with two unarmed guards posted inside the facility.
He also questioned whether the so-called “village guards”—a new addition for Cambodia’s elections who are not officially part of the country’s security forces—would be adequately trained to protect the rights of voters.
“As far as I understand, these village guards fall under the framework of the Ministry of the Interior, but they are just citizen volunteers from their villages or communes who are chosen by the local council to help monitor security,” he said, adding that they “aren’t provided with remuneration like public servants.”
“These village guards are different from police and RCAF, as they have not been trained on election-related code of conducts and ethics … We are concerned that if these village guards don’t receive proper training or instruction from the NEC, it may cause voters to worry.”
Political analyst Hang Vitou said the addition of security forces and village guards to provide “security protection services” on Election Day shows that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is afraid of losing power.
He said that while the now-defunct opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November amid allegations that it was plotting to topple the government—has called on its supporters to boycott the election, the party is incapable of disrupting the polls and the CPP “has nothing to fear.”
“I think that the government is afraid of … any unexpected event that might occur,” he said, referring to the possibility of a boycott of or protests over the elections that are widely seen as neither free nor fair, absent the CNRP—the CPP’s only viable challenger.
“I expect that the opposition supporters—if they even participate—will merely go to vote. The opposition appears incapable of doing anything that would disrupt or disturb the election.”
Hun Sen has launched a crackdown on the CNRP, NGOs and the media in recent months that is widely seen as part of a bid to guarantee that the CPP remains in power following the July 29 general ballot.
Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country, including the banning of the CNRP and the arrest of its current president, Kem Sokha.
Since the dissolution of the CNRP, Hun Sen has repeatedly referred to the party as seeking to establish a “color revolution” in Cambodia, a term commonly used to refer to the movements that developed in several countries of the former Soviet Union during the early 2000s and sometimes to those in the Middle East.
Analysts have told RFA that statements from the prime minister and his government increasingly hint of CPP concerns over the possibility of an election boycott by supporters of the CNRP, which received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in 2013, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.