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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Head of election watchdog tapped for NEC post

Head of election watchdog tapped for NEC post

Head of election watchdog tapped for NEC post

Hang Puthea, head of election-monitoring group Nicfec, has been selected as the ninth member of the reformed National Election Committee (NEC), it was announced yesterday, just hours after Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek officially turned down the role.

A letter obtained yesterday, which was signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday and sent to opposition leader Sam Rainsy, revealed the decision.

“[As per] the conversation between you and me on the phone on March 29, our parties have agreed to take Mr Hang Puthea, executive director of Nicfec, as the ninth candidate of the NEC,” the letter says.

“Both of our parties have prepared a joint official letter to the Permanent Committee of the [National Assembly] to confirm our agreement on this candidate. I have already prepared this joint letter and already signed on it, so I would like Your Excellency [Sam Rainsy] to inspect and sign this letter … before the NA closes the deadline for accepting applicants,” it adds.

Rainsy confirmed the decision yesterday evening, explaining that Puthea was an obvious choice for the role.

“Hang Puthea is the second best after Pung Chhiv Kek … [he] commands the same respect,” he said.

But a high-level source in the Cambodia National Rescue Party told the Post that Rainsy had “made the decision alone”.

Puthea said yesterday evening he had not yet received an official letter from either party confirming his selection. “I just hear maybe, but not [officially] from the CPP or CNRP, just from normal officials,” he said.

Puthea added that it was likely he would accept the position, but wanted to “discuss it with Pung Chhiv Kek first to know the real reason” that she turned it down.

Puthea’s Nicfec has long criticised the Kingdom’s elections, and often clashed with the government.

In the aftermath of the disputed 2013 election, the government accused Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA) – of which both Nicfec and Licadho are members – of conspiring with the CNRP to mislead the public about election irregularities.

Dr Markus Karbaum, an independent consultant specialising in Cambodian politics, said Puthea’s selection was “an excellent choice regarding free and fair elections in Cambodia”.

“Puthea is an utmost capable expert, and he fulfills all qualifications to play an important role within the NEC,” he explained.

Independent analyst Ou Virak said that Puthea could be a “decent choice” for the role. But added: “We’ll see what he can do … the devil’s in the details.”

He said he wasn’t surprised by Puthea’s selection or Kek’s announcement that she had rejected the role. “I’m almost certain they [the CPP] didn’t want Pung Chhiv Kek.… It was set up so she wouldn’t agree to it.”

Pung Chhiv Kek talks during a press conference last year at a Licadho office in Phnom Penh, regarding the ninth seat on the NEC.
Pung Chhiv Kek talks during a press conference last year at a Licadho office in Phnom Penh, regarding the ninth seat on the NEC. Heng Chivoan

In a statement released yesterday morning, Kek said that “although it was a great honour to have been chosen for this very important position, I deeply regret I have to decline the offer”.

She had accepted the role in July on the basis that she would “enjoy immunity and full autonomy and independence in decision making and other activities.”

But, she said yesterday, this had not been possible.

“They want me to get in the home to arrange the house to make it better, but when I arrived in front of the home, they locked door and will not to allow me to get in,” she said.

After Kek conditionally accepted the role, a new rule was introduced banning dual citizens from sitting on the NEC.

Kek, who is a citizen of Cambodia, France and Canada, said it was unfair that she was being asked to revoke any citizenship, when senior government officials are allowed to maintain their own dual-citizenships.

CNRP spokesman Yem Ponharith said his party had not objected to the conditions set out by Pung Chhiv Kek, but the CPP had.

During “discussions, we disagreed with [the CPP]. At last it was deadlock on this point, and later Mr Sam Rainsy agreed [with the CPP]. So it does not come from the [CNRP].”

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