Two independent electoral watchdogs have hit back at accusations that they are seeking to disrupt an upcoming general ballot in Cambodia after expressing concerns over political tensions in the country and the lack of a viable opponent to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service last week, Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), questioned the legitimacy of the July 29 election in the absence of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November after Hun Sen alleged that it was plotting to topple his government.
Koul Panha said Comfrel would wait until the May 14 deadline for political parties to register before deciding whether it would participate as a monitor in the upcoming vote, and also urged would-be international observers to be aware of the political situation in Cambodia before accepting an invitation from the National Election Committee (NEC)—the country’s official electoral body—to do the same.
Over the weekend, government-aligned media outlets Swift News and Fresh News published letters to the editor by a “Pul Peanrin,” accusing Koul Panha—who fled Cambodia last year after authorities disbanded the “Situation Room” group of 40 NGOs led by Comfrel to monitor elections—of colluding with foreigners to undermine the July vote.
The letter also claimed that Koul Panha’s recent appointment as chairman of the Bangkok-based regional electoral watchdog Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) was a reward for his “role in disrupting past electoral processes,” and warned that he would reestablish the Situation Room in Thailand “with the purpose of destroying the upcoming election.”
On Tuesday, Anfrel rejected Pul Peanrin’s letter, saying in a statement that Swift News and Fresh News had published information “which inaccurately portrayed ANFREL activities, including allegations that ANFREL intends to influence the election and participate in the organization of a ‘Situation Room.’”
“ANFREL is not aware of the existence of, or involved in any activities related to such ‘Situation Room,’” the statement said, adding that the group “denies any involvement in plans to undermine the Cambodian Elections on behalf of itself, its Board, or any of its member organizations.”
Anfrel noted that none of its staff members were interviewed to verify the information published by the two media outlets and welcomed requests for comment.
Comfrel issued a statement Wednesday saying the organization “has no stance and has undertaken no activities to destroy a free and fair election, as alleged by certain local news media in recent days.”
“On the contrary, Comfrel has a mission and carries out activities in support of a democratic, free and fair election in Cambodia,” the statement said.
“Koul Panha … has stated that he strongly believes in the fight and advocacy for the 2018 election to be free and fair again, so that it reflects the will of the people.”
The government has regularly accused the Situation Room coalition of supporting the opposition after it criticized the NEC for lacking independence and highlighted irregularities in Cambodia’s 2013 general elections and commune ballot in June last year. The group of NGOs was ordered to disband after the commune vote by Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior for failing to “reflect neutrality.”
Hun Sen has accused the coalition of acting as a “command center for a ‘color revolution’ under the pretext of monitoring the elections” and vowed that it would never again operate on Cambodian soil.
The latest allegations against Koul Panha come amid an ongoing crackdown on NGOs and the media—actions widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that the CPP remains in power for another term.
Sam Rainsy, the former president of the CNRP, called on Cambodians over the weekend to refrain from voting in July if the banned party is refused the right to register for the election and put forth candidates. He also urged national and international monitors to “refrain from ‘observing’ an electoral farce with a foregone conclusion.”
The NEC on Monday hit out at calls from “certain individuals” to boycott the country’s upcoming general ballot, threatening action against detractors who dissuade the public from voting. Later that day, Hun Sen claimed victory in “destroying the color revolution” in Cambodia and urged voters to turn out for the polls in July.
Social researcher Meas Nee told RFA that statements from the prime minister and his government increasingly hint of CPP concerns over the possibility of a 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.
“We can’t say yet whether the millions of voters who support the CNRP will come to vote or not,” he said.
“The CPP will still require a mandate for their new government.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong and Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.