Cambodian activist and independent radio station chief Mam Sonando, who was recently freed from prison, says upcoming elections in his country will be deemed as not free and fair unless the authorities move to revamp the National Election Committee, which will conduct the polls.
He said that Prime Minister Hun Sen's government should implement the long list of electoral reforms recommended by a United Nations expert to ensure that the July polls are credible.
Mam Sonando, who walked out of prison in March after a court quashed his conviction for alleged involvement in a secession plot, said failure to adopt electoral reforms would result in the polls being questioned, similar to those held in 1998, 2003, and 2008.
The opposition, charging that past elections were manipulated by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has urged the United States and European powers to seek targeted sanctions against Hun Sen to delegitimize him if the upcoming vote is rigged.
“I don’t want to say the National Election Committee is good or bad, but the mandates following the past three election results were not acceptable," Mam Sonando told RFA's Khmer Service during a visit to Washington.
"I would like to request a change within the NEC because they didn’t perform well enough in the past three elections," said the 71-year-old director of the popular Beehive Radio station and president of Cambodia’s Democrats Association, an active nongovernmental organization.
"This is a good opportunity for a change in the NEC. If we don’t change the NEC, this election will face the same problems like before.”
He said that the NEC must reform according to recommendations made in a report late last year by Surya Subedi, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.
In his report, among other proposals, Subedi wanted the NEC to have independent and autonomous status in the constitutional and legal structure of Cambodia, with its own independent budget allocated by the parliament.
He also called for what he called a more effective, impartial, and nondiscriminatory procedure for the registration of voters in Cambodia, and a special election tribunal or election court to resolve election-related disputes, rather than using the NEC itself to do so.
“If the government doesn’t listen to the U.N., I think the 2013 election will not be free and fair,” Mam Sonando said, warning that disputed elections could spark violence.
He also said that his radio station was being accused of being a pro-opposition mouthpiece because he echoed opposition requests for NEC reforms.
The opposition has called on the government to postpone elections until the NEC addresses allegations by The Committee for Fair and Free Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) and the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) of irregularities in voting lists.
The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party says as many as 1 million people are missing from the lists.
“The election must be delayed at least one or two months to correct those mistakes,” it said in petitions to the government last week.
Hun Sen predicted last month that his party would win at least a two-thirds majority in the upcoming polls in which the main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, is barred from standing because of a string of convictions against him which he says were politically motivated.
Mam Sonando said he has no preference for any political parties.
“If you like the current regime you can maintain it, but if you don’t like it you can change it,” he said.
But Mam Sonando said that if Hun Sen’s CPP, which has ruled the country for nearly three decades, is reelected, his station will not be allowed to broadcast widely and "doesn’t have a future.”
“It seems Cambodia has freedom of expression with countless radio stations and newspapers but, in fact, for a Beehive Radio Station Director, there is no freedom of expression,” he said.
He said that his station has been denied permission to expand to the provinces and that state-run radio stations prevent it from reaching out to listeners.
“I requested the Ministry of Information to widen our broadcast to other areas, but the minister denied the request,” he said.
Mam Sonando also blamed the opposition parties for not being strong enough to check the ruling party.
Mam Sonando was released in March on the orders of Cambodia’s Court of Appeal after prosecutors sought to drop two of the most serious charges against him—insurrection and incitement to take up arms against the state.
He was arrested in July last year, convicted of the charges three months later, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Appeals Court however convicted Mam Sonando on a new charge of illegal logging under the Forestry Law and reduced his sentence to five years, with eight months—or time served—in prison with the rest suspended.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.