The head of an election watchdog in Cambodia on Tuesday slammed a senior official from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for labeling anyone who refrains from voting in the country’s upcoming general election a “traitor” to the nation, amid calls for a boycott of the ballot.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has cracked down on Cambodia’s opposition, NGOs and the independent media in recent months as part of what observers say is a bid to ensure his CPP stays in power following the July 29 election.
The Supreme Court dissolved the CPP’s only true challenger—the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—in November after it was accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and the party’s former president Sam Rainy has urged supporters to shun the polls in July to avoid legitimizing what is expected to be a blowout victory for the ruling party in an election that is neither free nor fair.
Hun Sen has repeatedly urged Cambodians to show up for the ballot and on Sunday, senior CPP official and National AIDS Authority chairman Ieng Mouly was quoted by government-aligned Fresh News media as saying that non-voters “love dictators,” adding that those whose fingers are not stained with voting ink at the end of the election will be easily identified as “guerillas” and “traitors.”
On Tuesday, Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) director Koul Panha—who fled Cambodia last year after authorities disbanded the “Situation Room” group of 40 NGOs led by Comfrel to monitor elections—said Ieng Mouly had no right to threaten voters.
“The people have the right to vote or not vote for any political party—it is entirely legal [for them to choose how they cast their ballot],” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page.
“Any government officials who threaten to label voters who don’t go to the polls as ‘guerilla traitors’ are abusing the law and human rights.”
At the end of last week, Hun Sen lashed out at calls by Sam Rainsy for voters to boycott the upcoming general ballot, saying that it was a violation of electoral law.
“Propagandizing citizens against voting violates the laws of the country, as stated in Article 142” of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, he said at the time, without providing additional details.
In December, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—warned of 5-20 million-riel fines (U.S. $1,240-$4,950) and “other criminal punishment” for those “sowing distrust of the election” after RFA’s Khmer Service reported on low turnout for voter registration following the dissolution of the CNRP.
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the CPP ahead of July.
Also on Tuesday, Florida Congressman Ted Yoho, the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, told RFA that he and other U.S. lawmakers are finishing up draft legislation which aims to level sanctions on Cambodia over the government’s recent restrictions on the democratic process.
According to Yoho, the “Cambodian Democracy Act” will be brought through committee “within the next two to three weeks” before being voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It’ll single out [officials] that are suppressing the people in Cambodia—it’ll do it financially, it’ll do it on travel restrictions and on trade,” the congressman said.
Yoho noted that 25 percent of Cambodia exports go to the U.S., giving Washington significant leverage to pressure Hun Sen on rolling back restrictions.
“This is something that we can [use to] affect trade policies if the Hun Sen government doesn’t get on board and follow the rules that were outlined in their constitution to allow the people to have freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” he said.
“America is not backing away—we’re putting more pressure on [Hun Sen] and one of our goals is to … remove all other foreign aid other than, maybe, humanitarian.”
Both the U.S. and EU have already 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 president Kem Sokha in September on charges of “treason.”
Yoho acknowledged that the proposed bill may come too late to force Hun Sen to reinstate the CNRP before the July ballot, and said the fairness of the election will ultimately “rely on the Cambodian people demanding that they have opposition parties to Hun Sen.”
“And if they can’t do that, they aren’t going to be free and open elections—it’ll be a sham of a democracy,” he added.
He said that absent the CNRP, a boycott of the July election is “a great strategy.”
“It takes away the legitimacy of [Hun Sen’s] party, the CPP, and that’s what I would recommend to the Cambodian people,” he said.
“It’s the Cambodian people that will determine the legitimacy of the election, and if they don’t show up in large numbers that sends probably the strongest signal that they can send to Hun Sen and to the rest of the world.”
Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Cambodia Tuesday to “quash the politically motivated ‘insurrection’ convictions” against 11 members, supporters, and activists of the CNRP, ahead of a court decision on their appeal expected Thursday.
The 11 have been incarcerated since 2014 for their alleged role in a July 15, 2014 demonstration held by the CNRP against government manipulation of the general election a year earlier, and restrictions on peaceful assembly, that turned violent when police tried to forcibly remove protesters.
In 2015, they received sentences of from seven to 20 years in prison, in what Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams called “one of the first of many bogus cases brought against the opposition after the party nearly won the disputed 2013 elections.”
“Although the government has banned the political opposition from the July elections, Cambodian authorities have persisted with political trials of people who stood up to Hun Sen and the ruling party,” Adams said.
“This case is particularly twisted because the people charged not only didn’t commit violence, but some actively tried to prevent it. The court’s ruling, in this case, sends a broader message to the international community that the future of peaceful public dissent in Cambodia is at stake.”
Among the 11, Meach Sovannara, Oeur Narith, and Khim Chamreun were convicted of participating in and leading an insurrectionary movement under Articles 456, 457, and 459 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, and received 20 years in prison.
Ouk Pich Samnang, Sum Puthy, Neang Sokhun, San Seihak, San Kimheng, Tep Narin, An Butham, and Ke Khim were convicted of participating in an insurrectionary movement under Articles 456 and 457, and sentenced to seven years’ in jail.
Reported by Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.