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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Will voters agree to bite the bullet?

Will voters agree to bite the bullet?

hunsen10-7.gif
hunsen10-7.gif

Hun Sen registers as a voter for Election '98

The instructions are simple, it's the meaning that's ominous:

- put a glass of water in front of you;

- drop a bullet in the glass;

- promise to vote for the Cambodian People's Party;

- drink the water.

Rights workers see these instructions - which have reportedly been given to local Kampot people resistant to CPP voter recruitment drives - as a death threat: break the oath and the bullet ends up in your body.

The "bullet-oath" reports follow a series of other complaints by human rights investigators, electoral observers, and the UN Secretary-General's special representative to Cambodia Thomas Hammarberg. They have all lambasted the CPP in recent weeks for what they call an intimidation campaign aimed at stacking CPP membership rolls via the reactivated Communist-style cells the party used as a grassroots structure to run Cambodian society in the 1980s.

Hammarberg said the CPP is crossing a line between mobilizing and harassing. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has flatly rejected that interpretation.

"Why can't we do this? Is everything the CPP does wrong? The other people cheat and tell lies and it is no problem. [The rights workers] keep silent," Hun Sen said in one recent speech.

Regardless, no explanation has been forthcoming about the "bullet-oath" or any of the many other voter-recruitment techniques the party is reportedly using around the country, which some officials blame on lower level CPP chiefs who are overzealous in interpreting orders from above.

One "recruitment" technique involves the use of religion. Local CPP officials in some areas are said to be taking people into pagodas to swear before Buddha that they will vote for the CPP.

Others involved in elections said that regions who voted against the CPP in 1993 have received less governmental aid than other "loyal" areas. Again this year, they warn that many people can expect to be without roads, medicine and other forms of assistance if they vote for "the wrong party".

And crude intimidation is continuing in the countryside. One rights worker rattled off recent cases of intimidation involving opposition party supporters in at least three provinces.

"[In Kampot] one guy was chased through his village by his commune leader who was trying to kill political opposition member. The chief ran to the police station to get a gun, but the police wouldn't give it to him so he went home to get his own. He was unable to find the man again.

"[In Svay Rieng] armed men surround houses at night, cock their weapons loudly and say that all Funcinpec or Sam Rainsy Party people must be killed," the rights worker said, on condition of anonymity.

In Prey Veng there are "just regular death threats" and people's movements are monitored, according to the investigator.

Conversely, in what may have been the first politically motivated killing of members of a party allied to the CPP, two Khmer Citizens' Party members were killed in March. Rights workers are looking into those killings.

Hun Sen has recently responded to criticisms about the electoral climate by calling on military officials to guarantee the safety of all those who campaign.

There are signs his words are being heeded.

"Please provide all facilities to all parties to carry out their political campaign so they can get support from the people without any hindrance," Hun Sen reportedly said on May 16 at a military base on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. "Any attempt to prevent or obstruct any party is illegal... Any attempt to threaten or intimidate voters is illegal," he said according to Reuters.

Benefits of the military's newfound will to protect the opposition were evident during Sam Rainsy's campaign-like swing through the northeast last week. In Kampong Cham and Kratie - where Funcinpec won large majorities in 1993 - the former Funcinpec member campaigned freely, often with Interior Ministry-supplied protection. Several thousand people attended his speeches, willing to overcome their fears in order to hear someone blast the two dominant vote-winners in the 1993 elections, Funcinpec and the CPP.

Hun Sen's appeals for a free and fair atmosphere follow heavy criticism of the CPP's recruitment campaign, in particular a door-to-door push where local party officials - who often hold high political or military positions - seek thumb prints and a promise villagers will vote for the party.

Hammarberg singled out the thumb printing as violating the spirit of a neutral pre-election atmosphere, an "open invitation to coercion". The opposition NUF alliance named it a prime motivation for its decision to boycott the July 26 date.

The CPP has issued tens of thousands of booklets in connection with the thumb printing campaign, explaining cell leaders' duties in mobilizing their allotted clusters of families, usually about ten, to vote for the party.

Incentives are promised if the potential voter cooperates. If they do not, other pressure can be applied, including threats to their safety. Some voters who have tried claiming neutrality have been told they will be "ineligible" to register to vote, rights workers reported.

Claiming other political parties are wooing voters with grand promises of positions of power, concrete buildings and motorbikes, Hun Sen said that the CPP's thumb prints were merely to verify that supporters had received small gifts of MSG. "If they received it, they sign," he said. "The reason for the thumb printing is... to check that [the donation] really did reach them."

The other purpose of the campaign was to measure CPP's popular support, he said. "Mr Hammarberg said there was a campaign of intimidation. No."

Numerous people in Kampong Cham and Kratie told the Post that they had been approached for thumb prints. Some agreed in order to receive gifts from the CPP or because they thought they had to. Others said they refused without incident.

The thumb printing campaign is widespread in the country, including Phnom Penh, and appears to have compounded the security fears of many people. Newly thumbprinted "recruits" fear retribution if they choose not to register, vote for a different party, or engage in opposition political activities, several rights workers said.

In some provinces, rights workers said local authorities told villagers they could compare their "MSG campaign" thumb print with their voting thumb print to see if they honored their promise to vote CPP. While this is not technically possible, it could dupe voters into supporting the CPP out of fear, rights workers said.

BLDP founder Son Sann - one of King Sihanouk's appointees to the Constitutional Council - alerted the King to the thumb-printing campaign two months ago and warned that it was contaminating the political environment.

"Recently during the (CPP) voters' census, they had to sign a pact to join with the CPP," he wrote. "Your Majesty has deigned to write that the verdict must be left to the people with their ballots. But terror reigns in Cambodia, and no one will dare vote with their conscience."

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