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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Foreign observers gagged until after polls

Foreign observers gagged until after polls

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MUM'S THE WORD

"For $3,000 a month, I guess we can keep our mouths shut"

Foreign election observers have been told they can neither investigate complaints

nor talk to the press about their findings, prompting critics to question the usefulness

of the entire effort.

And the ultimate spokesman for the entire foreign observation process will be a man

whose salary is paid by the European Union (EU), which is also paying more than $11

million to stage the elections.

Critics say the unanimous June 17 election of EU Observer Chief Sven Linder as the

spokesman of the foreign observation mission, the Joint International Observer Group

(JIOG), is a "massive conflict of interest".

"It's outrageous!" said one foreign observer. "Can't everyone see

this? Is Linder ever going to say 'the elections were a farce and we've therefore

thrown $11 million of European taxpayers' money down the drain?'"

Critics are also worried that many observers, especially those here short-term, will

have little knowledge of Cambodia, and that the big foreign observation missions

will not publicize any problems they find until after each electoral process is finished.

Missions in most other countries usually make interim statements, which may yet happen

here.

One critic likened it to witnessing a car crash. "You see a car accident and

later you tell people 'I saw an accident' - but you didn't do anything to help. Later

still, there will be a debate whether it was really an accident after all."

Those involved in observation who can talk to the press say that by restricting observers

from commenting they are ensuring that their thoughts will not be taken out of context.

They also defend their decision not to discuss what their observers are finding because

it wouldn't be fair.

The EU is one of the main funders of Cambodia's elections, so the judgment of its

observers about how freely and fairly the process is going is keenly anticipated.

Linder told the Post: "It is not fair to give any assessment to the press until

after the whole process is over... [But] I will not remain silent... It is important

to understand that [members of] the EU Observation Unit are observers, not players.

"If we react before the process is finished, on this or that complaint, we would

increase the danger of becoming players [in the process], not observers."

He stressed the importance of keeping a "cool head" and not being forced

into "playing someone else's game by commenting" on an on-going process.

The EU has 18 long-term observers. Their terms of reference have not been officially

disclosed but the Post has seen a copy, including conditions set out in bold type

"not to be over-zealous or proactive". They are not allowed to investigate

or corroborate complaints.

The Electoral Assistance Secretariat (EAS) is coordinating all JIOG observers from

a $2 million UN trust fund. EAS chief, Jacques Carrio, stressed that the UN was not

observing the election.

He said however that "we think that respected journalists would go to the relevant

source, the authorized source, for instance the heads of mission," in order

for comments not to be taken out of context.

Denying observers the freedom to comment publicly has been enshrined in a regulation

of the National Election Committee (NEC). The observation missions accepted this

when they agreed to participate. Sources say that foreign-funded experts advised

in the drafting of the regulations.

USAID is paying for 25 long-term observers. Canada (4) and Australia (2) will fund

six more.

One applicant for a USAID positions said that she was told observers would not be

expected to duplicate the work of local observers by "traveling all over the

province".

One man who was given a USAID-funded job said his interview lasted four minutes and

that he concentrated on saying that he had little knowledge or opinion of Cambodian

or American politics, and that seemed to please the interviewer.

One new observer was happy with his posting in Kampong Thom because he mistakenly

believed he would be on the Thai border. Another said his interview consisted mainly

of describing the joys of vacationing in Thailand's Koh Samui.

Such people are aberrations - merely selective anecdotes not representative of the

high caliber of most observation staff - say those in charge of hiring the observers.

Carrio acknowledged that some "people with a lot of good-will, but no [electoral]

background" - he described them as "the odd tourist" - would inevitably

be hired among the short-term observers. However, after 10 years of international

monitoring missions, there are now a lot of experienced people available, he said.

Indeed, there already seem to be well-qualified observers who have looked at their

terms of reference, understood them, then decided to quietly and without fuss venture

beyond their mandate to seek out problems anyway.

Around polling day - safely past the contentious registration and campaign periods

- the Cambodian elections will come under the inspection of about 440 short-term

observers. Some of them won't be in Cambodia for more than a few days and it is unlikely

they will be free to talk to journalists.

Eight will be Chinese - an irony lost on no one since China doesn't conduct free

elections. Burma, as part of ASEAN, have yet to reply whether it will send observers.

Burma's ruling junta is chiefly known for its refusal to allow a democratically elected

government to take power in 1989.

Eight members of ASEAN will send eight observers each (64 total); Australia (22);

Norway 10 "mid-term" observers; Canada (22); India (5); Japan (30); South

Korea (10); New Zealand (4); the United States (25) and possibly ten Russians will

be here too. The European Community will be sending another 60 short-term observers,

and each EC member will nominate their own in addition (another 140), making 200

EC observers in all.

Other organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International

Republican Institute (IRI), and the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), will

also be sending observers. Local electoral watchdogs COFFEL and COMFREL hope to have

12,000 Cambodian observers - at least one for each polling station - come polling

day.

These groups will be free to make public comment. The NDI has already done so, saying

that the environment for a free and fair election does not yet exist. COFFEL and

COMFREL say all of their observers will be free to talk to the press about their

observations, and are being encouraged to do so.

There are other teams, specifically UN staff who are monitoring human rights or the

safety of returning politicians, whose mandates may dovetail into the electoral process.

Carrio said that on July 26 the short-term observers will travel in two-person teams,

with one interpreter, hopefully visiting an average of six stations each. That would

be about 1,500 polling stations - 12% of the total - in the highest populated areas.

Carrio said that percentage would be statistically significant.

Others involved in the observation process say that 12% might be significant if they

were looking at a presidential-style campaign where every province had the same choices.

But in a proportional representation-style election like Cambodia's, 100% should

be the target if a totally valid judgment is to be made, they contend.

Who would pay for 24,000 foreign observers is, however, a moot point.

Critics say that the heads of mission who can comment aren't the ones dealing with

the grass-roots problems.

One American expert said: "Even if you have 300 unbiased people who are expert

on the political process, fluent in Khmer and with the greatest support in the world

behind them, if neither the EU nor the UN plan to make pro-active public statements

about what they're finding along the way, well, it's a pointless way of monitoring

an election.

"Look around you. Most observers are going to be here for that one special day

- July 26 - which may probably go off quietly. But if they can't contextualize this

with an opposition that can't campaign effectively, that can't get on the radio,

whose signs have been shot down, whose nation's electoral machinery has been captured,

with [National Police Chief] Hok Lundy's men protecting the polling stations, with

voters who have been subject to months of intimidation and coercion and have no faith

in the secrecy of the vote... Lets just say I hope the EU has hired 200 people who

will ignore their terms of reference, talk to journalists and raise merry hell,"

he said.

But Carrio and others reject much of this criticism.

Carrio said the long-term observers are producing reports that would be available

to short-term observers "so no one is acting in a vacuum. After that it's a

matter of intellectual honesty."

Foreign observers were being vigorously trained and there is now an "informal"

EAS agreement for them to liaise with the observers from COMFREL and COFFEL who know

the lay of the land.

Training material given to observers, say those who know, does not shirk from interpreting

Cam-bodia's political problems. "But we're not training people to denounce anything,"

Carrio said. "It's factual. It's technical... how [to tell whether] the law

is being applied or not... [Observers] have to know whether what they are seeing

is deliberate, whether it's a trend, or simply an anomaly."

"There will be no institutional link [between the EAS and COFFEL and COMFREL],"

Carrio said, "but we are emphasizing to our observers how essential it is to

strike a cooperation, to exchange information, views, guidance and draw on [locals']

knowledge."

EAS could not bring COFFEL and COMFREL formerly under its umbrella because of money

constraints and for fear the line of national sovereignty could be overstepped, he

said.

Both COFFEL and COMFREL told the Post they were happy with EAS's encouragement toward

cooperation. They are also considering using observation forms that will be standardized

among all missions.

Most rights workers say it is too early to determine whether the election observation

process, and its conclusion, will be robust, honest and thorough enough.

Carrio spoke to the Post about the importance of not passing judgments - that's the

job of the National Election Committee - and that "contribution should be done

in a positive manner... in an effort to get things redressed".

Critics, though encouraged by the EAS's "informal" acceptance of local

observers, still think that the official judgment of Cambodia's elections will be

an equivocation: "Sort of free, sort of fair, a few problems, OK," said

one.

"It'll fit with the international agenda. There's no attempt to influence the

quality of how [the elections are] being done. But it's a bizarre way of judging

the credibility of an incoming government, which is designed to help determine your

country's foreign policy... Because that's the point. Isn't it?"

Some armchair critics however point out that it may be presumptuous to criticize

the JIOG for banning its employees from public comment when many others being paid

to strengthen Cambodian civil society find themselves similarly cobbled by censorship,

self-imposed or otherwise.

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