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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Caught between a hammer and an anvil

Caught between a hammer and an anvil

NATIONAL Election Commission chairman Chheng Phon (right) is a man under pressure.

He leads a group whose independence has been consistently questioned, and now opposition

politicians are calling for his resignation after he co-signed the Ciccone deal.

The following is an edited version of a Post interview with Chheng Phon, in Siem

Reap on March 22.

Post: On March 7th you finally signed a $25.8 million contract with a private

company to stage the elections. You refused the first draft. What happened?

Chheng Phon: When I decided to leave my ashram, after ten years far from political

life, I didn't want anything for myself. I had no ambition to become a president.

I refused many times. Then I decided to join the commission. I want peace for my

country, for my people. Elections are maybe in the background, but peace must be

in the foreground. I have a moral commitment toward peace... peace is the first condition.

But how to find peace? We need a free and fair election. If we have a good election

we can have a good assembly. A good Assembly can provide a good government. A good

government will assure social order, law, justice and peace. But to do that, the

government needs help. For example today, to come here in Siem Reap we had to take

private cars. Private cars for the commission members to be able to work in the provinces.

It's the same for food and hotel expenses, we have to pay for it. We have nothing

and time doesn't allow us to wait. The big difficulty is no time.

After the MPs' vote you now have a bank account. How much money do you have

now?

The government gave us some money. But for a long time we couldn't use it, because

the Assembly didn't pass the law allowing us to open a special bank account. So we

had to find solutions to start to work. I want to be clear. We accept all the foreign

aid, from all the friendly countries, from Australia, Europe, Japan. They helped

us but that's not enough. That's the reason we signed this agreement with a private

company. It's like a spare wheel. If a tire bursts, you need another one. Till now,

I haven't received any money from this company. If I have the choice I won't use

this aid.

Did Ciccone already get some money?

No, I don't know. I don't know that. I know the government signed. I just signed

as a witness. If there are obstacles [for the elections] I will ask the government

and the government will ask this company to help us.

Are you sure you only signed as a witness?

Yes. I didn't sign the first contract. I thought that it was against the NEC rules.

I was alone. The 11 NEC members didn't know anything about my signing. I had to obtain

at least the majority of the members to be allowed to sign. I also wanted the Article

20 to be modified. That's why I first refused to sign. Then the contract was corrected,

but I refused to be the only one to sign. The NEC is not allowed to ask for foreign

aid. The government has to do it.

Did you then consult the NEC members?

I consulted the eleven members and I modified Article 20 in the sense of "a

spare wheel". Ciccone will not replace European aid. The spare wheel will not

replace the ancient wheel. If I signed the first contract, I had to reject all aid,

from Australia, Japan and European Union. I cannot do that because they helped us

very much. Why would we refuse if there is no mistake? They made no mistake. But

we had to take an insurance, if they were late. That is just insurance policy. There

is confusion. It's not to replace the other aid.

When did the government begin dealing with Ciccone?

I started to warn the Prime Ministers. We had not enough money to stage the elections

on time. I thought if I don't alert them, it's my fault. How can we manage with more

than 600 people in the organisation? We had nothing. What could we do?

There are two companies. What do you know about Malam?

The representative of the two companies signed the contract. I don't know why I've

been asked to sign. It's not my job. It's the government's job.

In the contract the Cambodian government has to pay $25.8 million to Ciccone.

Where is it going to find that money?

You see I am not a business man. I don't know about business. But if we don't have

money, we'll have to borrow some and the interest will be expensive. It's a problem

beyond my capacities, it's government business. I just signed as a witness. If I

have difficulties in the elections, I can ask the government to help me.

What would have happened if you had refused to sign?

I'm not interested in this story. I have no ambition. I just want people to respect

the law. I studied the situation and asked all the parties to behave like brothers,

not like ennemies. Big parties must help small parties... I can help those little

parties. If they cannot talk to the government, I can talk for them. I am their support.

Why do you think the government chose these companies? Is it because of the

"free and fair" condition?

What do I want? What do my people want? One hundred per cent say they want peace

here, to be able to work and to live properly. That's the reason why I went out of

my ashram. It is not for being a president, for being a minister, or anything else.

I want peace for my people. But it is difficult. People who love war are next to

me and behind me. I am between the hammer and the anvil. How can I fight these war

ideas? The different parties know it, I have no party. I can talk to everybody. I

can talk to everybody to try to reject cruelty and violence. I try to convince people

with words, not with arms.

Do you mean international aid cannot be linked with democratic progress?

That's not the word to use. You know, for example "free and fair", it's

easy to say but very difficult to do. We have to free minds first. There is not the

word "to free", there is only the word "free". But how free?

We are not freed. More than 20 years of war, more than 20 years of oppression. And

when you talk to people, nobody wants to vote now. They get bored. They don't believe

any longer in politicians. They don't find good candidates. Here is the main problem.

My problem is, will the people participate to the elections? Only the people matter.

If I have time enough I can try to give back confidence to people. I never misbehaved

with my people. Even in Pailin, in the former Khmer Rouge area, everybody comes to

see me. Everybody listens to me and asks for my advice. I am very confident and compassionate

to the people. When I travel I don't go by plane. I go by car. I want to see people's

lives. I can see signs of hope and I want to cultivate them. I want to reunite all

the political parties to educate them.

How can you do that?

I want to make a great ceremony in Takhmau, in my theater. I will reunite all the

parties to talk to them. I will do that in June.

Don't you think some people use your person, your name as a moral warranty?

Some friends warned: 'You will be cheated, you will be used. You are already too

old. Stay quietly at home.' I said no. I am being exploited but peace can arrive.

One can even kill me. You must know how to lose if you want to win. Those who walk

a long time must rest to recover. If you make war, it doesn't last very long. The

people must choose. You have to be confident. Khmer culture, the philosophy of Buddhism,

is also one of the basics of democracy. Violence is in the town. But tolerance is

in the countryside. I don't think about the town and the handful of politicians.

I always think about the people and about the countryside.

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