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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - NEC-run safe zones suggested

Boxes holding Chinese goods intended for use in next year’s commune elections are delivered to the National Election Commission in Phnom Penh yesterday.
Boxes holding Chinese goods intended for use in next year’s commune elections are delivered to the National Election Commission in Phnom Penh yesterday. Pha Lina

NEC-run safe zones suggested

A senior member of the Electoral Reform Alliance yesterday appealed for the National Election Committee to be given special jurisdictional powers over certain areas around the country during election campaigns so that it can ensure freedom of assembly.

The appeal was made by Sok Sam Oeun during a meeting of the ERA, an umbrella organisation composed of groups like election monitor Comfrel that was formed after the disputed 2013 national election to pressure the government to reform.

“The NEC might get measures stipulated in the law or have discussions with the government about whether some places are handed to the NEC,” said Sam Oeun, who is also a prominent lawyer, at a roundtable discussion held at the Sunway Hotel.

“During the election campaigns, the NEC would be the decision-maker, so there will be no need to ask for the towns or ministry [to give permission to assemble] during the election campaigns,” he added. “Please take this for discussions with the government.”

Despite clear constitutional protections on the freedom to assemble, authorities frequently ban public gatherings by saying that the organisers did not seek permission for their activities. The bans are often enforced by security guards or armed police.

However, the Kingdom’s Law on Peaceful Demonstrations makes clear that event organisers need only submit notification of – not ask permission for – an event or protest, which authorities can only block if there is a legitimate threat of physical danger or if the event falls on one of a handful of major holidays. If authorities do not respond to the notification, it is considered a de facto approval under the law.

Sam Oeun said the issue has cropped up during past election campaigns, and that some parties were even left unaware of which government bodies to seek “permission” from before campaigning for votes on state-owned property. NEC-run areas would fix this, he said.

However, NEC deputy secretary-general Sorm Sorida said at the roundtable that the proposal could be troublesome because he did not believe the elections body had resources to manage such areas.

“If those places were handed to the NEC to control, I think the NEC would face some problems,” Sorida said. “What if there was damage [to the areas]? Who would take responsibility?”

But he said he could envision the NEC working with authorities to set aside some areas clearly designated for campaigning – even if the elections body itself did not assume jurisdiction over them.

“I agree that the NEC should work with the local authorities to arrange some public locations for . . . the political parties to use for their campaigning,” he explained. “That would be a good thing.”

Separately, in a morning ceremony, the Chinese government donated nearly $12 million worth of items to the NEC for use in the coming June 4 commune elections, which will be the first vote held since the body was restructured following the 2013 election.

Among the bounty were 29 pick-up trucks, 10 SUVs, five vans, 29 motorbikes, 26 video conferencing systems, 2,400 two-way radios, 170 power generators and an assortment of general-use office items including work desks, filing cabinets and chairs.

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