IRI Asia Director Testifies on the Prospects for a Democratic Election in Cambodia

“Prospects for a Democratic Election in Cambodia”
Testimony before the House Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific
Daniel Calingaert
Director of Asia Programs
International Republican Institute

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the political environment in Cambodia leading up to the July 27 parliamentary elections. I greatly appreciate your interest in Cambodia at this critical juncture in the country’s history. The upcoming elections present a rare opportunity for Cambodia to move beyond corrupted authoritarian rule and to embrace genuine democracy.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) has worked to promote democracy in Cambodia since 1993, when our Chairman, U.S. Senator John McCain, led the IRI observation of the country’s first multi-party elections. We have worked with all major political parties and with civil society to build democratic processes in Cambodia.

IRI has observed more than 100 elections throughout the world. For the upcoming elections in Cambodia, we began to monitor the election process in January, when voter registration took place. We have conducted an on-going monitoring program which will culminate in a major observation mission for the parliamentary elections on July 27.

The integrity of elections depends on all phases of the electoral process, from the registration of voters, through the pre-election period, to the vote count and tabulation and the announcement of results. To assess elections, IRI looks at several factors:

From what we have seen so far, IRI is deeply troubled by the preparations for Cambodia’s upcoming elections. While the electoral procedures and administration provide the makings of a technically competent election, the political environment is marred by violence, intimidation, and pervasive restrictions on political expression. This undermines the ability of citizens to make free and informed choices and threatens the overall credibility of the election process.

Let me highlight for you today just the most glaring flaws in the electoral process.

Flaws in the Electoral Process

The pre-election environment is clouded by intimidation and fear. Murders of opposition party activists, widespread intimidation of political activists and ordinary citizens, and selective application of justice create a climate of impunity which severely curtails the ability of citizens to express their political views freely. While there are fewer reports to date of politically-motivated murders, as compared to past elections, the assassinations earlier this year of former Member of Parliament Om Radsady and leading monk activist Sam Bunthoeun provide a stark reminder of what can happen to critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

There are widespread reports of political violence and intimidation across the country. The houses of party activists are burned to the ground. Party signboards in front of the houses of opposition activists are torn down. Villagers come under intense pressure to swear allegiance to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Voter registration cards are collected by village chiefs to prevent villagers from voting or to cast doubt on the secrecy of the ballot. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), a domestic monitoring group, has documented more than 130 cases of politically-motivated violence and intimidation. Few of these cases have resulted in prosecution.

Village chiefs are a key source of the intimidation of voters at the local level. They exert substantial influence over the lives of villagers and often use their influence to obstruct opposition party activities and to pressure villagers to vote for CPP. The Commune Administration Law gave authority to commune councils, which were elected in February 2002, to select new village chiefs, but the selection of new village chiefs remains blocked by the Ministry of Interior. This has allowed CPP to retain its grip on village politics. By blocking the replacement of village chiefs, the Ministry of Interior has clearly failed to implement a key result of Cambodia’s last election. This confirms the strong impression of an electoral process manipulated by CPP and may raise questions about the integrity of elections generally in Cambodia.

The climate of impunity extends to the electoral administration itself. Of the 130 cases documented by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), more than 35 relate to alleged violations of the Law on the Election of the National Assembly. Although the Election Law established severe penalties for such violations (Articles 124 and 131), CCHR knows of no cases where these penalties were imposed. Failure to enforce the Election Law exacerbates concerns about the neutrality of the election administration.

Electoral procedures have improved since the last elections in Cambodia. Moreover, political parties and domestic monitors are regularly invited to discuss their concerns with the election authorities and to comment on the National Election Committee’s draft election regulations. The National Election Committee has even incorporated suggestions from political parties and domestic monitors and from foreign observers such as IRI. Nevertheless, the National Election Committee and the newly appointed Provincial Election Committees are composed predominantly if not entirely of individuals aligned with the ruling parties, particularly with CPP. The impartiality of the election administration therefore remains open to question at a time when important issues of the election process’s transparency still need to get resolved.

Political parties and civic groups still face impediments when they try to carry out their lawful activities, despite constitutional guarantees to free expression and assembly (Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Article 41). Partisan judges and law enforcement officials use outdated laws on incitement, disinformation, and defamation to stifle political debate. Under various pretexts, local authorities continue to disrupt regular activities of opposition political parties and to prevent peaceful political gatherings. For example, earlier this month IRI staff witnessed local authorities in Phnom Penh confiscating materials that an opposition Member of Parliament had distributed. In another case, the Interior Ministry prohibited CCHR from using a theater group to disseminate voter education messages.

The ruling parties, particularly CPP, retain dominance over broadcast media. In a country where almost one-third of the population is illiterate, most people get their news from television and radio. All of the country’s television stations and the vast majority of radio stations are controlled or closely affiliated with the ruling parties, most with CPP. As a result, broadcast news serves as a promotional vehicle for the CPP-led government, while opposition parties have little access to the airwaves. Just last week, state television and five of the six private TV stations broadcast a graphic documentary that blamed Prince Ranariddh, leader of the royalist Funcinpec party, for the 1997 coup d’etat, even though CPP had carried out the 1997 coup d’etat to oust Prince Ranariddh. Moreover, the Cambodian government denies Radio Free Asia and Voice of America access to FM frequencies.

The National Election Committee has issued regulations to provide increased access to broadcast media by opposition parties during the 30-day official campaign period. These regulations, however, allow broadcast news coverage to maintain a heavy bias in favor of CPP. Moreover, opposition parties are denied access to private broadcast media. All six private television stations recently announced that they will neither accept paid political party advertisements nor cover the election campaign.

Opportunities for U.S. Policy

What can the United States do to address the flaws in Cambodia’s election process? The short answer is to stay focused on Cambodia’s election process to the end, to strongly encourage effective prosecution of politically-motivated crimes, to press for enforcement of the election law, and to insist that the election results be recorded accurately and be respected. Let me lay out four specific steps the U.S. government might take to promote the prospects for a democratic election in Cambodia:

First, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Phnom Penh for the ASEAN Regional Forum on June 18, he should meet publicly with Cambodia’s parliamentary opposition leader, Sam Rainsy. The visit will take place less than six weeks before the elections and will be used by Prime Minister Hun Sen to show international support for his regime. Unless Secretary Powell meets Cambodia’s parliamentary opposition leader, the visit may get used to bolster CPP’s electoral prospects. In addition, Secretary Powell should deliver a strong public message of concern about the climate of impunity and the flaws in the election process.

Second, the U.S. Congress should increase its pressure on Cambodia to hold free and fair elections. Statements given in the U.S. Congress carry a great deal of weight in Cambodia. They put pressure on the government to restrain its excesses and give encouragement to democratic activists who risk their lives and livelihoods to take part in the elections. Mr. Chairman, I applaud your decision to hold this hearing today to draw attention to the situation in Cambodia. Any further steps you or other Members can take on Cambodia, such as resolutions or floor statements, will provide a powerful reminder that the United States will be watching Cambodia’s parliamentary elections through to the end-through the vote tabulation to the announcement and the implementation of election results.

Third, in one important case of past political violence, the United States is in a strong position to pressure Cambodian authorities to prosecute the offenders. In 1997, a grenade attack on a public rally of the opposition Khmer National Party injured IRI’s then resident director in Cambodia, Ron Abney, and killed 19 Cambodians. The FBI investigated that attack but never released its report publicly. That report should be released publicly, without further delay, because Ron Abney-and the Cambodian people-deserve to know who ordered and carried out the attack. Public release of the report will also put pressure on Cambodian authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Fourth, and most important, the U.S. Government should pay close attention to Cambodia in the post-election period and should stand up for a fair election. After Cambodia’s first parliamentary elections in 1993, the international community acquiesced in Hun Sen’s refusal to accept defeat. Faced with his threat of civil war, the international community left Hun Sen in control of Cambodia’s security apparatus. Following the second parliamentary elections, in 1998, the international community stood by as CPP short-changed the process of adjudicating complaints and got away with election fraud. This year, the election results may not get recorded accurately or be fully respected unless the international community, led by the United States, stands up for a democratic election process. The United States must remain firm in its support for a free and fair election process and for a complete implementation of the election results.

Mr. Chairman, Cambodia has moved beyond the point where the country’s violent past is a valid excuse for accepting substandard elections or for disregarding the will of the Cambodian people. Cambodians deserve better. They deserve the opportunity to express their views freely, to make a free choice in the upcoming elections, and to see that the results of these elections are respected.

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