Multiple election watchdog organisations including Comfrel and Nicfec yesterday expressed concern that government officials are limiting monks’ ability to vote in upcoming commune elections, despite a 2015 pledge from the National Election Committee to facilitate the process.
Activist monk But Buntenh cited voter intimidation, lack of government identification and limited access to information as the main factors preventing monks from registering for the 2017 commune elections, a process that ends in exactly two weeks.
“Some officials say monks should not participate in the political process”, Buntenh said yesterday, adding that some officials even threaten or intimidate monks to prevent them from registering.
In 2014, the nation’s supreme patriarch, Tep Vong, appealed to the government to prevent monks from voting entirely. He had previously banned monks from exercising their voting rights in 2003, alleging it contradicted Buddhist principles, but reversed the decision in 2006.
However, no government action was taken and the Ministry of Cults and Religion said yesterday they are taking their cues on the issue from the NEC.
Buntenh added that most monks don’t have official government IDs, but do have separate forms of identification used within the monkhood. “We do not understand why we can’t use them to register,” he said.
Korn Savang, a senior official at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), also said local officials had been purposefully trying to suppress monk voting rights. “In some places, only 5 percent of monks have registered,” he said.
Buntenh said he sent a team from his Independent Monk Network for Social Justice to both Poipet and Pursat provinces to check on monk registration. In Poipet, they found only 10 percent of the monks interviewed from five different pagodas had registered. Not a single monk in the Pursat pagoda visited was registered.
Buntenh estimates that “not more than 35 percent” of the estimated 53,000 monks in Cambodia are registered to vote.
Sam Kuntheami, executive director of election-monitoring organisation Nicfec, agreed that monk registration was particularly low and blamed “discrimination” from commune officials.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea, meanwhile, said monks wanting to register to vote must use a birth certificate since they do not have an official government ID.
“Monks who do not have ID must use their birth certificate . . . The law in Cambodia does not require registration, so it could be their right to decide not to register,” he said.
But, as Buntenh pointed out, birth certificates were not common in Cambodia until after 2005.