In provincial Cambodia, where fear and superstition often go hand in hand, local
rituals with a sinister edge are being performed in order to secure votes.
"About one month ago, people from three villages around here were invited to
a ceremony to drink sacred water," says a 20-year-old fruit seller from K'poh
village in Kampot.
'Drinking sacred water' in many villages is accompanied by a pledge to vote for the
ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), and a veiled threat of consequences if the
party is not re-elected. In a number of villages the water is offered with a single
bullet at the bottom of the glass.
Koul Panha of Comfrel, an election monitoring NGO, says reports of vote-swearing
ceremonies have been coming in since the registration period in January.
"This violates the election law and should be punished. There have been a lot
of complaints to the NEC and they have not intervened," he says. Rural people,
he adds, understand the threat.
"It means if there is a problem then they will use violence," he explains.
"They combine violence with religion to ensure the voter will support them."
The Kampot fruit seller fearing reprisals-"Just call me Srey Mau"-describes
Around 250 villagers were summoned to the three-hour ceremony at the village chief's
house. Under the gaze of the local authorities, the district governor presided over
While incense burned, four glasses were filled from ceremonial bowls. Groups of 15
people were then ushered into the house. One by one they were told to drink from
one of the glasses and pledge support for the CPP, then given a T-shirt.
Mau claims each villager was then told: "If you are an extremist, then you will
become as liquid as the water."
Um Her, 52, has been CPP village chief of K'poh since 1996. He admits the ceremony
took place, but insists there was no coercion.
"Yes we got the people to come here, but we didn't force them, they volunteered,"
he says. "We said: 'If you're still loyal to the CPP, then come.' Then we just
lit the incense and we didn't put bullets in the water."
According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which has recorded numerous
incidents of a similar nature, it is not illegal to seek a pledge, only to force
On that question Mau paints a different picture to her village chief.
"No one refused to go, because the village chief came to each family and said
anyone who is registered to vote must come to the ceremony," she says. That
included supporters of Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
Ngeam Dara, an SRP supporter from a nearby village, says the authorities did not
come to his village, but he knows many people who were compelled to go: "They
just invite the CPP supporters and the poor villagers who don't understand or don't
And, says Mau, the ceremony is an effective means of guaranteeing votes, particularly
if villagers believe it is not ordinary water, but taken from the temple: "Some
villagers believe they will die if they change their vote, because they have sworn
But village chief Her disagrees: "It's just ordinary rainwater and there is
no pressure. All people have different ideas, so they don't have to follow the pledge.
People will vote for the CPP because they build roads, schools and pagodas."
The Communities for Democracy report from CCHR records that compulsory vote-swearing
ceremonies have taken place in 21 districts across nine provinces.
Participants at CCHR workshops mentioned "concern about being forced to swear
support for a particular party ... [by the] ... drinking of 'sacred' water".
CCHR states that the vote-swearing ceremonies are elaborate, and employ both Buddhist
and military symbolism. There is a strong regional trend, with all reports coming
from the central and southern provinces. This, CCHR speculates, may reflect a concerted
approach to influence the most populous and vote-rich provinces.
But 'sacred water' is not the only method of mobilizing voters. One participant in
a CCHR session in Stung Treng recalled a much-repeated theme, saying that people
in his commune were told: "You will be killed if you support other parties."
There were also threats to confiscate land or evict people, refuse the children of
opposition supporters access to school, and demanding villagers' thumbprints in support
of a political party. People in eight provinces reported the threat of war "if
people vote wrong".
Such concerns, coming just five years after the end of the civil war, are still current.
A recent survey conducted by The Asia Foundation found that people's confidence in
a peaceful election has increased, but is still woefully low.
Forty-six percent of those questioned expect problems related to the election, although
the report notes this figure has decreased from 58 percent in 2000. Many others simply
do not believe they have the right to change the government.
"More than one-fifth of the electorate is afraid to use the ballot to register
its opinion," it stated, noting: "15 [percent] say it is unacceptable to
vote against the government because it is the high authority and [7 percent] are
CCHR noted that threats in some provinces appear to be aimed at convincing people
their votes are not secret. One Prey Veng villager said people were told: "Be
careful: they can see [who you vote for] using computers."
CCHR says there is little optimism that will improve as the election approaches.
Villagers felt vote-buying and intimidation would continue until the last minute.
And although campaigning is banned on July 26, the day before polling day, villagers
said that was traditionally when the most intense pressure was exerted.
The night before the election is known as the 'night of the barking dogs' when local
officials go door-to-door distributing gifts, money or threats. Given the reports'
findings, it seems many rural people will enter the election booths more worried
about the night's bite than its bark.