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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Free or fair: says who?

Free or fair: says who?

Cambodian people are still victims of the genocidal Killing Fields regime of the

Khmer Rouge and have been waiting for justice for more than two decades. They believe

only the international community can offer real justice.

People don't believe that Cambodia's corrupt and systematically politicized court

can guarantee minimum justice. Failure to bring offenders and criminals to trial

means encouraging them to commit even more mistakes or awarding them big prizes.

Even worse, the next generation will follow the same way as the old one.

This affected the election processes in 1993, 1998, 2002 and 2003. For this year's

general election it is too early to say that the election is free and fair and acceptable

before the election process calendar comes to the end. The few words "free and

fair and acceptable" stated by some international observers, trouble the country

in the aftermath, while others found problems in the election process.

The election raised many questions in terms of "free and fair and acceptable"

which have not been answered or resolved in accordance with the framework of law

by the NEC. Problems include threats, intimidation, allegedly political violence,

election law violation, NEC partiality in conducting the election, access to media

and irregularities, which were reported by local election monitoring organizations

during the pre-, election day and post-election period.

Failure to address all of the issues properly with laws is a root cause triggering

public outcry and demonstration against the result of the election, eg, in the 1998

and 2003 general elections, and maybe future elections. In other words, if the above

issues were fairly addressed with existing laws, there would not be a reason to make

complaints nor the demonstration by competing political parties and/or election monitoring

organizations; ie, if the election were organized in a free and fair manner, the

winner would be a real winner and the loser a real loser with dignity for all.

Many international observers came to Cambodia for a while, stayed in hotels, went

out to have a look at some polling and ballot counting stations and then wrote reports

on the whole election process for the whole country, as if their observation activities

covered the entire election period and everywhere.

Before the election process was completed, they went back home shortly after polling

day, leaving behind controversial issues for Cambodia. Questions may be raised: how,

where and when they monitored the election. Compared to the number of voting and

counting stations, the numbers of international observers are far lower.

This means that, in fact, they could not know what happened in other places or in

their absence. Local people know the environment better as to what happens in their

areas, because they live there. This gives importance to network activists of some

independent election monitoring organizations. According to my observation, it is

likely that many international observers came to enjoy elections, rather than to


If the international community, particularly the main donors of Cambodia, treat the

election marred by the above problems as free and fair before the election process

completes and election disputes are properly resolved, it seems that another injustice

is imposed on Cambodia, in addition to suffering left behind by Khmer Rouge.

Many international observers are from democratic donor countries which funded most

of election cost and provide development assistance to the country. So Cambodian

people think that they [observers] are well-educated, experienced in elections and

know the wrong and the right in laws.

But the observers did not do their job completely in terms of election integrity.

What voters saw and what the observers said were likely different with the same facts.

Cambodians do not understand what they were doing: they help justice and democracy?

This makes the public disappointed, and is an indication that injustice still prevails

in this country. Observers produce an impact on the whole Cambodian society and elsewhere

and finally on the reliability of the election observation mission itself.

Moreover, this year's election is another test of Cambodia's judicial system in anticipation

of the Khmer Rouge trial. The current system will reflect the credibility and justice

scale of the proposed trial, as the tribunal is dominated by local judges. Therefore,

we poor Cambodians do not expect fair justice from the tribunal, although the international

community will be involved with limitation. It is believed that justice for victims

of the trial may not be very different from that of the 1979 trial.

Since the international community, especially donors, cannot guarantee standard election

in the southeast Asian war-torn nation, Khmer Rouge leaders will probably be judged

in the same way as international community judged the election.

Without justice, consequently, it is not expected that there is rule of law, respect

for human rights, development, and poverty alleviation. Because justice together

with freedom is the foundation of democracy and national unity.

We have waited and seen how the Constitutional Council, the highest legal body of

the country, ruled on the election disputes. From now, it is possible, for every

body particularly election observers, to conclude whether this election is free and


Last but not least, the shape of Cambodian democracy depends on donors' commitment.

The problem comes from the fact that they do not say clearly "yes" or "no".

- Bo Vannarith - Phnom Penh



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