As the ‘neutral’ member of the National Election Committee, Hang Puthea’s decisions could have important consequences come election time
Hang Puthea this week started work as the ninth member of the National Election Committee, the ostensibly independent body that supervises Cambodia’s elections. Selected by the CPP and CNRP as a bipartisan representative, he is intended to maintain independent leverage on the balance of power. On Thursday he was also named the committee’s official spokesperson.
Puthea could play a key – perhaps decisive – role in determining who will govern Cambodia after the next election, for example in the case of a disputed vote. So who is he?
The son of a teacher and housewife from Kampong Thom province, Puthea has a PhD in law from Kazakhstan’s Al-Farabi Kazakh National University and 17 years of experience as the executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC). He is widely considered eminently qualified for the job.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, described Puthea as a “quiet, simple guy” who was easy to talk with but who also had strong opinions and was unafraid to express them – even in sensitive political situations.
“He is very committed to election reform,” he said. “We go together in wanting to see free and fair elections and he is very patient and committed to his work.”
During an interview at the Mou Cafe in Street 360 this week, Puthea this week called himself the “reserve” of his colleague Pung Chhiv Kek, the president of rights group Licadho and NICFEC’s chairperson. With four members of the NEC selected by the CPP and four by the CNRP, he said he only put his hand up for the ninth position after she declined her nomination.
“I worked closely with Dr Kek for 17 years about elections; I learned from her not only theory but also characteristics,” he said. “She is neutral and so am I.”
Puthea said he would rather all members of the NEC be unaligned but having at least one member was a good start.
“If we as NGOs just stand and cry, it’s not enough to help election reform in Cambodia so I decided to take the job,” he said.
A husband and father of two daughters, he said he had no friends or family involved in politics or government and preferred to live a quiet life, spending his spare time reading about political theory and figures.
He said he had never been offered a bribe in the past and would not be tempted if someone tried to influence him
“I have my own house, car and telephone,” he said. “I’m not rich but I’m not very poor. I have enough.”
His decisions would be guided by the law and the interests of the majority of people.
“I am the neutral person. My main priority is for the election to be fair and for the party that doesn’t win to accept the result. I don’t want trouble after the election."
He said the priority of the NEC should be finalising the rules for eligibility for the new voting lists and then educating the public about how to enrol.
“If people don’t understand about this they will lose time to come to the office of the commune councillor [to get their documents] and be lazy to come to register, because this is the new process.”
He added that he would like to see a greater role for civil society in scrutinising the election process to increase transparency.
Despite the responsibility of his role, Puthea said he was “not scared”.
“I’ve been working [for] 17 years with NICFEC so I have experience about this,” he said.
“I am 50 years old right now. In another 50 years more I will be dead so before then I should do something for the next generation. I’m not scared because everyone has to die.”