DESPITE promises from Second Prime Minister Hun Sen that he will do his very best
to oversee free and fair elections in July, and step down if he loses, it is hard
to find many people other than his underlings who wholeheartedly believe him.
"You can say it as many times as you want, but it isn't translating into action
at the local level," said one human rights worker. "People don't believe
the government anymore, not even when they show good faith."
Speaking to reporters after meeting with King Norodom Sihanouk in Siem Reap on May
2, Hun Sen promised to "strive to make the forthcoming elections as free and
fair as possible".
His comments came three days after his first major speech since emerging from a lengthy
mourning period for his deceased mother, in which he said he was on an electoral
"mission" to have free, fair and credible election.
During an April 29 "Peace Day" rally in front of 5,000 people at Olympic
Stadium, Hun Sen also promised to peacefully transfer power to any victorious political
party or arrange a coalition government with a plethora of parties if the CPP wins.
But with less than three months to go before elections, Hun Sen's pledges are ringing
hollow to the opposition, diplomats and rights workers.
"We are still getting reports of abuses and intimidation. People are still afraid.
That hasn't changed. If you talk to grassroots political activists, it is quite frightening
to see how scared the people are," one rights worker said.
Even the arrest of suspects in three murderous attacks which may have had political
or racial motivations are being doubted, according to several rights workers.
"It is amazing to see how little faith the people have in the government,"
Even within Hun Sen's own party, officials fearful of a crackdown on CPP moderates
being squeezed for "talking too much", warned it could spell the end of
real opposition. "If you want to shut every mouth in your own party, how will
you treat the opposition? Many of them will be killed!" said a CPP official.
"The international community, they have closed one eye. They will not close
One source of widespread pessimism in the run up to elections has been a CPP grassroots
campaign to assure a hearty vote for the party come election day.
Critics say the party's orchestrated cell network is open to loose interpretation
by "group leaders" who are often in a position to intimidate voters.
A grassroots procedural guidebook asks group leaders to take responsibility for about
10 voters in an area, advise them "how to love and support the party",
lead them to register to vote and ensure that all members go to vote, know how to
vote and "are sure to vote for the CPP".
It is the last part of the instructions that particularly worries rights workers
and electoral observers who say it is a recipe for intimidation.
"This particular issue of thumb printing has been reported to the National Electoral
Commission and I assume they will do something," said Thomas Hammarberg, the
UN Secretary General's special representative.
"No one denies the right to recruitment drives, but it is important that this
is done in a way which would not amount to coercion... that line is thin and requires
sensitivity not to use their local authorities to imply pressure," Ham-marberg
said in a May 4 interview.
He also called on those in power to continue to make it clear to the people that
their votes will be secret and he encouraged the counting of votes on the widest
level possible to guarantee the safety of voters.
"There are strong arguments for protecting the ballot boxes and probably moving
them to the district level... Again, if there is a spirit of generosity [this should
be resolved]," he said.
One NEC member said he has heard reports of voter intimidation, but that no evidence
or complaints have yet been brought before the commission.
He said however, a negative message from up high has "made people fearful".
"It isn't free, isn't fair, if it is not secret," he said. "They do
want to participate, but they don't want to jeopardize their families."
Others also appear to have reservations about Hun Sen's election-related promises,
including the United Nations, which agreed to send more than 300 electoral monitors
and observers to Cambodia - but with conditions.
If UN staff are not safe as they travel around with political candidates, or have
their movements restricted, Hammarberg said, the UN election monitors will pull out.
One diplomatic source said that the current environment is not acceptable but that
there is still time for authorities to put Hun Sen's words into action. "It
depends when you date the election climate from. If you date it from when he said
that, the verdict must still be out. [But] it is clear we have been in the campaign
period for a long time already. There is clear cause for concern. Political parties
have [already] faced numerous incidents of political violence."
While Hun Sen said that King Norodom Sihanouk appeared satisfied with electoral preparations
up until now and "expressed his wish to stay in... Cambodia until after the
election", there are signs of the King's discontent.
The King , who has been asked by the international community to help create a stable
political climate, is reported to be "resigned to fate", despite Hun Sen's
Opposition politician Sam Rainsy called the King "fatalistic" after his
own April 30 audience with the monarch.
The King has met with many diplomats and political figures in recent weeks to assess
the situation and he has repeatedly commented in his monthly bulletin that the elections
will not meet any reasonable criteria.
"The King has very few illusions about the free-ness and fairness of elections,"
said Rainsy, who refuted the rosy assessment that Asean diplomats said the King had
in regards to elections.
Rainsy said the monarch is effectively paralyzed by his fear of blame - either for
sanctioning phony elections or for elections not taking place at all.
"The King said: 'If I support July 26 and those elections are unacceptable,
I will be held responsible," Rainsy said. The same goes for an election delay,
which might prevent them from ever happening. "So he will just follow the man.
He will not do anything."
The King has shown some signs of hope, though. In an April 8 letter to UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan which was reprinted in the royal bulletin, the King thanked the
UN for accepting Cambodia's request to coordinate and observe elections.
"The presence of such observers constitutes a guarantee for the good unfolding
of the voting operation," he wrote. "In doing so, the UN, in the person
of its very eminent Secretary General, offers confirmation of the importance it attaches
to free, democratic, credible and fair elections."
Others suggested, however, that the relatively small UN presence will not be enough.
"When you go far into the provinces...you find people saying they don't think
they can vote without UN observers [ present]," one electoral observer said,
suggesting that there will not be enough to make them feel comfortable.
The observer, who has experience monitoring elections in other countries, expressed
pessimism about the chances of a credible vote, saying all the signs are present
for a "pretty bad election".
"Nobody seems to believes the Second Prime Minister will accept the results
if he loses."
Amid the tense electoral climate, a second UN memorandum on executions that remain
uninvestigated will be released. The report, which is now scheduled to be given to
the government in the coming days and made public two weeks later, is an update both
on a previous report on 41 "confirmed" executions following the July coup.
Thomas Hammarberg declined to say how many new victims would be listed in the report
- rights workers have cited a total of more than 100 cases since early July - but
pointed out that "the longer people have disappeared, the more likely it is
that they have been killed".
He said the report should paint a broad picture of the human rights climate at the
moment. "It's a collation of where we are now, since early July, which underscores
again the need for investigation.
"The point is not that the cases are new, the point is, for god's sake start
with the investigation!"
One rights worker in Phnom Penh pointed out that many cases will not be included
in the UN rights report as their reach is limited to areas where it is safe enough
for their staff to gather information.
"It is scary because no one knows how many [more] executions there are. A lot
of executions go unreported because people don't know how to report them or where
to report them, or they are afraid, or they live in remote areas where they can't
report them. We stumble onto many cases, so there must be many cases we don't stumble
Opposition political figure Sam Rainsy commended the UN center for its work and said
it must be extremely careful in dealing with the government.
"I realize the UN center is conducting a difficult task. You cannot be accurate
100 percent in this environment. People are afraid to speak. There is intimidation.
There are many pseudonyms...
"In this environment it is very difficult. What they have done so far is commendable.
They should be careful. The government is watching and waiting and looking for mistakes.
We have to have balance, even if there is a small mistake, it doesn't mean 99 percent
is not right," said Rainsy who is awaiting the results of an investigation into
the deaths of two supporters killed in February and March in Kampong Cham.
"There is killing [almost] every day," he said, noting the pervasive climate
"Everybody is afraid. They spy on each other in the ministry. The secretary
will spy on the minister. The head of cabinet can spy on the minister. It is the
Khmer Rouge tradition. This is the kind of culture I want to get rid of. People,
out of fear, can be scared out of doing or saying the right thing."