Conflicts and solutions – lower and higher interventions

Some days ago, The Cambodia Daily reported that the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) noted that the “independent voter registration monitoring in almost 300 communes around the country found serious breaches of National Election Committee (NEC) regulations – and the law – taking place at registration centers.”

Another election monitoring organization – The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) – which had been created with the goal “For building trust among competitive political parties in the election administration, to increase transparency, and to reduce electoral-related disputes,” published its Recommendations for Reforming the Composition of the National Election Commission To Build Trust Among Political Parties Contesting the Elections on 7 September 2011.

This shows growing activities towards the next elections: elections for the Senate have been announced to be scheduled for 29 January 2012, while the next local council elections are scheduled for 27 October 2012.

In preparation, voter registration lists have been displayed publicly at all Commune and Sangkat offices across Cambodia since 1 September 2011 for 45 days, until 12 October 2011. Because of the present flooding, the deadline has been extended for some provinces. During this period, the roughly 8 million voters can check and make sure that their names are on these lists.

Both the NICFEC and the COMFREL statements intend to contribute to electoral processes according to the law, and to help that the process is trusted by the population. The COMFREL statement suggests in this respect that “the election commission at all levels must be neutral and independent. In Cambodia, the state’s institutions, particularly the Electoral Management Body, is not independent and neutral enough though there is existing law to ensure that they are,” adding:

“…if the selection of the NEC composition at the national level was done through the party quota, five members of the NEC would be from the CPP, two members would be from the Sam Rainsy Party and the other two would be from the FUNCINPEC Party, totaling the nine members of the NEC.”

Some surveys indicate that many Cambodian voters are not fully aware of the requirements to participate in the elections. Last time, some people discovered only on election day that they are not on the voter list where they expected to be – without having checked beforehand and in time.

In different countries there are basically two different methods used to establish the voter lists. To give an example: though I left Germany 21 years ago to work in Cambodia, whenever there are elections in Germany I receive my ballot papers from the district office in the city of Hamburg where I had my last residence in Germany, and where I filed a departure notice stating that I am moving to Cambodia. I am being kept there on the voter list, and the authorities are responsible to maintain the list. The other method, used in Cambodia, puts the responsibility to get on, and to stay on the voter list on the individual voter. The same system is used in almost all states of the United States of America. The result of this arrangement is that voters of economically poorer sections of society, who often are also less educated, are excluded from the possibility to vote – unless they have picked up the necessary information and made special efforts to register themselves as voters.

Hang Puthea, the executive director for NICFEC, said:

“In relation to the knowledge of elections, Cambodians still need more training. That means people will not clearly understand the election process, and they still have a distrust of the election system.”

When a group of members of the Sam Rainsy Party [SRP] tried to do exactly that: to convince a group of elderly women at a pagoda, to register to vote in the Meanchey District of Phnom Penh in mid September, the commune chief told Mu Sochua, a member of parliament in the group, that she was not allowed to speak, especially using a microphone, claiming that this would require a permission as it was against the rules governing the elections – though the appeals calling on the people to make sure that they were on the voter list, did not mention any reference to their party, neither was any party mentioned on the cards they distributed, calling to register on the voter lists. The commune chief of Kbal Koh explained, according to The Cambodian Daily:

“You are violating the election law, and the authority has to stop you when you distribute the [information] cards or any document without permission. It is not the time for the election campaign.”

The Cambodia Daily described the events in detail:

There were almost as many authorities as SRP members, which came in handy when the information card distribution began, because it meant the authorities could grab back the cards as quickly as they were distributed to the public.

They were fast, too: “Don’t forget to register,” the SRP said as they gave the information to villagers. “Can we take that,” said the authorities as they took them straight back from the people.

Subsequently, a criminal complaint was filed against Mu Sochua, stating that her activities constituted campaigning: “She used the microphone at the pagoda to make announcements to the public.”

On the other hand, the Phnom Penh Post reported on 13 September 2011, with a picture of the Prime Minister showing him to use a microphone:

Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on all citizens, regardless of political persuasion, to register for commune elections scheduled for… next year.

Speaking to about 4,000 graduating students yesterday at Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island, the premier said that since 2008 some 10,000 soldiers had been unable to register because of armed conflict along the Cambodia-Thai border over the disputed Preah Vihear temple area.

“I would like to appeal generally, it doesn’t matter which political party you will vote for… you have to register and check your name on the voter list,” he said.

The premier specifically urged military personnel and monks to register.

In view of these clear words of the Prime Minister, the local authorities from the Meanchey District withdrew their court case against Mu Sochua without much explanation; she was reported to have complained against this step, as she would have preferred to receive a court verdict clarifying which side in this conflict had been violating the law.

This is frequently a crucial point: words of the Prime Minister solve a conflict between a group of people and government authorities or economic powers, and even if such a conflict is not solved, groups of people who feel to be treated unjustly appeal to the Prime Minister, often also to the First Lady.

A conflict between the new owner of the market in Tuol Sangke, Russei Keo, and the vendors having their stalls at the market – which is suddenly closed since 1 October 2011. The Phnom Penh Post reported that the vendors requested the intervention of the Prime Minister to “ensure that the market was not dismantled, that any development was halted, that there was no increase in rent and that vendors could sign 10-year contracts for their stalls,” while the local police had taken the side of the market owner:

Pok Vanthy, a representative of the vendors, claimed that on Saturday protestors had briefly clashed with district police after they reportedly attempted to confiscate the protestors’ motorbikes.

“One man … was injured on his mouth while he tried to take his motorbike back,” he said, adding that yesterday was the fifth protest since the market closed on 1 October 2011.

“We do not know whether our letter has reached Hun Sen or not.”

“We do not know whether our letter has reached Hun Sen or not” – often the last hope, fulfilled or not.

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  1. Da says:

    I recently work on women in parliament in Cambodia. According to my review of the Law on the Election of Member of the Parliament, it seems that religious bodies are not allowed to vote, e.g. monks. Da

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Da, for pointing out that there are controversies about the right of monks to vote.

    Can you please share the section of the Law on the Election of Members of the Parliament (in Khmer – but please also in English, if there is a published translation) you mentioned?

    I remember that the voting rights of monks were discussed around election times in the past. But any alleged restrictions (and I did not know that is in a law – only in advisories or ordinances) were also refuted by references to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia which says:

    Article 31
    “…Every Khmer citizens shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights, freedom and fulfilling the same obligations regardless of race, color, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth or other status…”

    Article 34
    “…Khmer citizens of either sex shall enjoy the right to vote and to stand as candidates for the election.
    Khmer citizens of either sex at least eighteen years old have the right to vote.”
    Article 35
    “Khmer citizens of either sex shall have the right to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation…”

    How can  a person “participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation” without also voting?

    When I quoted the words of the Prime Minister from the Phnom Penh Post (“The premier specifically urged military personnel and monks to register”) I thought that this is in line with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

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