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Foreign monitors dwindling

3 election officials
Cambodian election officials empty a ballot box in front of monitoring officials during the country’s general elections in July 2008. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Nearly 8,000 election monitors have already registered with the National Election Committee, but the number of international monitors has plummeted, an NEC official said yesterday.

Of the 7,746 observers registered thus far, only 26 are international, NEC secretary general Tep Nytha said. Though nearly two months remain before the election, the change between this and prior elections is clearly staggering.

In 2008, by comparison, nearly 600 international observers were among the 31,862 monitors, while in 2003, 1,156 internationals served alongside 29,637 nationals, said Nytha.

“This decrease is because most [international] observers focus on the countries that have just organised their elections. In the countries that have started to have prosperity, the [international] observers have decreased,” he added.

But election watchdogs offered a markedly different explanation, pointing to increased frustration among foreign observers over the NEC’s unwillingness to accept recommendations proffered by embassies and development agencies.  “International observers, as I understand it, do not come to observe, because we have not cared about their recommendations,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

Panha noted that the number of national observers appeared on track to be far fewer than in previous elections, a dip he attributed to a “lack of resources and also being broken hearted [with regards to the election process].”

One of the chief and repeated requests of foreign observers has been for the government to permit the return of opposition head Sam Rainsy.

His case was even raised by US President Barack Obama in November during the first visit of a sitting American head of state to Cambodia.

Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris and faces 12 years in prison should he return, has urged monitors to stay away.

Nytha, for his part, insisted the only reason they have done so is because “the situation in Cambodia was evaluated and seen to have improved elections”.

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