A Cambodia election watchdog on Thursday slammed an order banning campaign marches from major avenues in the capital Phnom Penh as a violation of the right to expression in the lead up to the country’s June commune elections.
In a May 5 notice to the National Election Commission (NEC), the nation’s top electoral body, the government of Phnom Penh announced that all political parties are prohibited from marching on most major streets in the city as part of a bid to ensure public security and avoid traffic congestion.
The ban—which covers main avenues such as Norodom Boulevard, Russian Federation Boulevard, Preah Monivong Boulevard, and Preah Sihanouk Boulevard—also extends to parks and markets, as well as other crowded spaces, the notice said.
According to regular electoral rules, political parties are permitted to campaign for 12 days ahead of the June 4 ballot, beginning May 20, but may hold campaign marches for only two days.
Sam Sokuntheamy, the head of Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), on Thursday urged the local government to reverse the ban, which he said limits free speech and reduces opportunities for political parties already facing strict limits on marching.
“The government should be providing more chances for political parties to march on the streets as part of their campaigns, as they currently only have two days to do so,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
In the week since the ban was announced, members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and local civil society groups have flooded the NEC with requests to override the ban, but the electoral body has yet to issue a statement addressing the concerns.
On Thursday, head of legal and election affairs for the CNRP Meng Sopheary told RFA that the party recently sent another letter to the NEC, which the commission accepted, saying the request would be discussed next week.
“We want to inform the people who live along the city’s main avenues of our party’s political platform,” she said.
At the time the ban was announced, NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said the commission supported the ban and called on all political parties to adhere to it. He refused to comment on the ban Thursday.
NEC secretary general Tep Nitha has told RFA that the ban was announced in response to members of the public and vendors “complaining that some political parties campaign at the markets, schools, and hospitals without adhering to the requirements of City Hall.”
The ban on marches came as a CNRP candidate in Kampong Thom province’s Baray district accused local authorities of threatening area residents who had hoped to attend a public forum hosted by the opposition party.
Mao Chheng Eam, CNRP candidate for Srolao commune, recently told RFA that only 70 people showed up for the May 7 forum out of an expected 200 attendees, and residents said local authorities—including village chiefs and deputy chiefs—had prevented them from participating.
“They threatened supporters and also local [opposition] party leaders,” he said, adding that authorities had also closely followed his own activities.
Opposition supporters have similarly been prevented from gathering at local pagodas and other public spaces, Mao Chheng Eam said.
CPP member Pol Chhin, the chief of Srolao commune, denied that CNRP supporters had been banned from taking part in opposition activities, adding that local authorities had given the party full permission to proceed with the May 7 forum.
“I will investigate these accusations and punish anyone who is found to have done so,” he told RFA.
Senior investigator for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) Kon Savang told RFA that all political parties have the right to engage with their supporters without fear of bans or discrimination.
While commune chief Pol Chhin understands this right, he said, some of the village chiefs and deputy chiefs under him may have acted independently to intimidate opposition supporters.
“You have allowed one party [the CPP] to do whatever they want, but banned another party [the CNRP] from doing so,” Kon Savang said, calling on authorities to explain their actions.
Nearly 8 million voters have registered to elect the leaders of 1,646 communes and wards across the country on June 4 from among 12 political parties, including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP.
The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The CNRP won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.
Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.
Reported by Zakariya Tin and Sokheng Saut for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.