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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election tensions rise

Election tensions rise

Campaigning begins today for the commune elections amidst an atmosphere of fear and

insecurity in several provinces deplored by human rights groups. Human Rights Watch,

a US-based NGO, is releasing a report on the commune elections that urges the international

community to exert pressure on the Cambodian government to stop political killings,

intimidation and other human right violations.

In its report scheduled for release today, HRW lists 250 cases of intimidation, threats

and harassment, including 25 death threats, against candidates and supporters of

parties competing against the incumbent CPP. Fifteen candidates or political activists

from both the SRP and Funcinpec have already been killed, four of them between January

3-5. Three of these were women commune council candidates.

"The violence and intimidation are clearly increasing as election day draws

near," said Sara Colm, senior researcher at HRW. "It's critical that the

international community use all possible leverage with the Cambodian government to

ensure that human rights violations during this period are not tolerated."

"Every act of violence or intimidation takes its toll, not only on the individuals

hurt by the violence but also on the democratic process and the validity of the elections

themselves. Candidates are more fearful to run and voters more fearful to vote with

their conscience," HRW's report stated.

"The government needs to send a strong message to its citizens that this time

around, they can vote for the party of their choice without fear and that their choice

will be secret and that the results will accurately reflect the will of the Cambodian

people."

The UN human rights office expressed similar concerns in its report released January

15 and identified several areas it said were particularly dangerous.

Stung by strong criticism from civil society, election observers and national and

international human rights groups for what they termed failure to act against the

perpetrators, the government yesterday issued arrest warrants against three soldiers

suspected of killing two election candidates in Kampong Cham last year, one each

from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party.

Prime Minister Hun Sen January 15 told authorities to crack down on all cases of

political violence and ensure the safety of all candidates while remaining neutral.

Sources said candidates from the two parties were still so scared for their lives

in certain provinces that they were spending nights under guard at their local party

offices and would do so during the two-week campaigning period. The situation was

particularly tense in the central and southeastern provinces of Kampong Cham, Prey

Veng, Kandal and Kampot, which have recorded some of the most serious cases of election

related offenses.

"Funcinpec is deeply affected by and worried about the violent death of its

candidates," the party stated in a communiqué. "It condemns violence

in all its forms and calls upon the local [authorities] to conduct thorough investigations

and bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice.

"[The party] strongly believes that the commune elections could have an impact

on the 2003 legislative elections ... and would like to reaffirm its will to help

conduct elections in a climate of security and transparency."

Meanwhile, the party headquarters of the three leading political parties were bustling

with activity January 17, with leaders and workers giving the finishing touches to

their campaigning strategies. Buntings, party logos and other campaign material was

being distributed for individual campaign groups. At a press conference at its HQ,

Funcinpec's leadership stated it would launch its campaign in Phnom Penh using individual

trucks with mounted loudspeakers in all 76 communes.

The report by the UN human rights office released January 15 expressed serious concern

over continuing violence and called for immediate measures to ensure the safety of

all political candidates, activists and their families. The report blamed the government

for failing to protect candidates and implement commune election law both by the

letter and spirit.

The recent burst of protest was sparked by the January 3-5 killings. Ngoun Choun,

54, Funcinpec's top candidate for Prey Tonle commune in Banteay Meas district in

Kampot was shot dead and her husband, Yuy San, injured January 3.

On the following day, another Funcinpec woman candidate for Chhouk I commune in the

same district, Long Phon and her husband Soun Kroeun, both 47, were shot dead by

assailants carrying AK-47s as the couple worked in their rice field in the evening.

The third slaying took place January 5 in Kork Preang commune, Svay Chrum district

in Svay Rieng province where SRP candidate Touch Sean, a 42-year-old widow with four

children, was gunned down by two men. Reports of the killing stated that the men

shot the pleading woman in the chest before leaving and firing three more shots at

the house.

All four are feared to be political killings since the two parties had said they

expected to do well in, and perhaps win, those areas. Provincial authorities cited

robbery as the motive behind one killing and said they were investigating motives

behind the others.

The UN report by special envoy Peter Leuprecht stated that the killings - 15

since January last year have involved either political candidates or party activists

from the SRP and Funcinpec - threatened to continue a pattern of election violence

that began with the 1993 and 1998 general elections. The biggest concern, he said,

was how these and other incidents of intimidation might impact the election outcome.

"Such incidents must not be allowed to become entrenched as an election norm,"

Leuprecht said in his report. He stated that commune elections were an important

step on the road to consolidating a democratic multi-party system that was accountable

to the wishes of Cambodians.

About 300 activists, students and Buddhist nuns, led by local NGO Women for Prosperity,

protested in Phnom Penh January 13 at the killings of the three women candidates.

WFP, which promotes the participation of women in grassroots democracy, had trained

one of the three murdered women. The group demanded stringent action against the

killers.

WFP president Nanda Pok said many women candidates standing in the commune elections

had been forced to face a barrage of criticisms, insults and intimidation due to

their decision to challenge a traditional male bastion.

"Yet they have striven to represent their gender, beliefs and political ideologies

by either standing as candidates or by actively campaigning in support of their candidates,"

she said. "The killings have brought the level of intimidation to unacceptable

levels.

"In a climate where Cambodia is attempting to travel the path of democratic

pluralism, it is vital that the government creates a secure environment that will

enable women to exercise their right to political representation without the threat

of intimidation, let alone death," she said.

In addition to the female candidates fielded by the three major political parties,

candidates from two women's parties - the Khmer Women's Party and the Angkor

Women's Party - are also entering the fray. A total of 12,052 women registered as

candidates for the commune elections, of whom three have now been killed. Many others,

said WFP, were losing the courage to continue.

Although their nominations indicated a shift in the traditional perception that women

were an appendage without any independent roles or rights, women's activists maintained

that the recent killings could undo all that had been achieved in bringing them out

of their homes to take on leadership roles.

In his report, the UN's Leuprecht said he had come away from his last visit in November

with a positive impression about preparations for the commune elections. He singled

out Prime Minister Hun Sen's call during his Human Rights Day speech December 10

that all kinds of violence and intimidation before, during and after the elections

should be prevented.

"[That] impression is now in danger of seriously being tarnished," he said.

Adrian Edwards, a UN political violence analyst, said that while statements against

election violence, intimidation and other irregularities were welcome, the mechanism

to carry out those wishes seemed to be not working. For example, he said, while 15

candidates and activists had been killed, arrests had been made in only a few cases

and a conviction attained in just one, the killing October 12 of the SRP's candidate

in Kampong Speu, Uch Horn.

"[This is] serious, considering that commune elections are taking place in a

politically stable and relatively safe atmosphere with democracy long restored [to

Cambodia]," Edwards added. The 1993 elections, he said, were held amid serious

political upheavals while the 1998 elections had come shortly after the coup.

Mark Stevens, Deputy Chief of the EU Election Observation Mission, told the Post

that the killings were a serious issue and that long-term EU observers were collecting

details of the incidents.

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