Coercion, threats and intimidation in the National Assembly elections
In a new report released today, Human Rights Watch investigates
harsh forms of intimidation on the rise in the run-up to the July 27 elections. Research
conducted in six provinces over the past month found that threats of social sanctions,
denial of access to state resources, and forced party membership are disturbingly
Political violence during the past decade's elections has taken a heavy toll. Merely
the threat of violence, and the resulting fear it instills, means that targeted killings
of party activists are no longer needed to convey the message not to support opposition
Instead, overt violence is being replaced by more sophisticated forms of intimidation.
A decrease in the levels of blatant political violence, while welcome, should not
be confused with an environment in which crucial civil and political liberties are
Intimidation is now primarily directed at the voting population and local activists,
rather than at high-profile opposition party members.
Typically, perpetrators are village chiefs, commune chiefs, and local members of
the security forces, yet provincial election authorities rarely rule against these
officials in official complaints.
To date, no local officials have been suspended, charged, or fined for vote-buying
or using threats or coercion to secure pledges to vote for a party, as stipulated
in the election law.
Although the majority of the problems are caused by the Cambodian People's Party
(CPP)-either by its failure, as the party in power, to ensure the protection of civil
and political rights, or by its active violation of those rights-Funcinpec and the
Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) have also violated provisions of the electoral law.
The SRP has used inflammatory anti-Vietnamese rhetoric in party rallies, despite
the fact that such language helped to contribute to mob killings of members of that
community following the 1998 elections.
The SRP is often quick to claim a political motivation in violence against anyone
affiliated with the party, yet it rarely retracts such allegations if the links prove
to be unfounded.
Funcinpec's choice in some provinces to file relatively few grievances with provincial
election committees has left its local supporters with little recourse for electoral
Human Rights Watch calls on the Cambodian government to enforce the Law on the Election
of the National Assembly, and in particular to rigorously and promptly prosecute
violations committed by local officials, candidates, or parties.
The National Election Committee and all others involved in the election should reinforce
the message that voters can cast their ballots for whomever they choose, regardless
of the receipt of gifts, and with assurances that there will be no reprisals against
them, regardless of the election results.
The following case studies, excerpted from Human Rights Watch's report, illustrate
how pervasive intimidation is across the country.
Impunity in Takeo
M, a 50-year old widow, lives in a remote part of Takeo, where two-thirds of the
homes in her village display small CPP signs. A month before Cambodia's commune elections,
M, a long-time Funcinpec member, was forced by her village chief to hang a CPP calendar.
Fearing what would happen if she refused, M complied, but ten days later the village
chief returned and accused her of defacing the calendar.
Although she had done nothing to it, the village chief threatened to arrest her if
any harm came to it.
This was not M's first experience with political harassment by local officials. In
May and June 2003, the village police chief attempted to recruit her into the CPP,
and threatened to prevent her access to the July polls if she did not change parties.
She was denied food aid in 2000 and 2003 due to her unwillingness to change parties.
M has good reasons to distrust her local authorities, particularly when issues of
political affiliation and security are at stake. According to the UN, local officials
were complicit in the October 1997 murders of five members of M's Funcinpec-affiliated
A member of the commune militia and an accomplice gunned down M's husband, a son,
and three nephews with dozens of horrified witnesses looking on.
The commune authorities were immediately notified but did nothing to intervene, and
although the provincial court issued a warrant for the perpetrator's arrest in December
1997, nothing more has been done.
The perpetrator is allegedly at a military base in Takeo, but the provincial police
have appeared unwilling to serve a warrant to a member of the armed forces.
In an interview shortly after the massacre, one of M's surviving sons told Human
Rights Watch, "I want justice, but we must keep quiet. We've lost five family
Six years later, M wept while she described how her fears of the authorities still
eclipse her hopes that justice might be served.
"Even now I am afraid," she told Human Rights Watch. Other relatives of
the victims expressed a similar sentiment and said they are "afraid something
like that could happen again".
This episode of impunity also looms large in the minds of M's fellow villagers, especially
in the days remaining before the election. When asked if they would raise concerns
with local authorities about any problems with the electoral process, such as fears
about ballot security, they said they would not. As one villager said, "It is
a time to keep quiet. We have to live with [M's] story every day."
Political intimidation in Kampong Cham
In Kampong Cham, a group of villagers' attendance at an SRP rally has triggered
a wave of political intimidation. As villagers crossed a narrow bridge on their way
back from the rally, two local officials made a list of their names. The next day,
the villagers were denied rice distributed by the CPP, and cursed by other villagers.
Two SRP signboards in the village were torn down, one on the instructions of a former
local militia member. Within five days of the rally, the activist who had organized
the group found that his well had been poisoned during the night.
The experiences have heightened people's fears, especially given the quick dismissal
of the case by the police.
"How can we know we will be safe to vote the way we want to?" the activist
wondered. The village chief, however, appeared unconcerned about the reports of harassment,
and described the situation in the village as "calm."
"People here keep quiet for their own safety," he said, with no apparent
'Gifts' in Siem Reap
The use of 'gifts' is on the rise across Siem Reap. Local observers suggest that
this "peaceful strategy" is now preferable to more violent tactics, but
it is considerably more ominous than traditional vote-buying.
Gifts are given in exchange for public oaths in which villagers pledge allegiance
to the CPP and relinquish all ties to any other party.
Participants are in some cases asked to thumbprint written documents, which many
cannot read, in the presence of local officials who threaten to repossess the gifts
or cut off future assistance if the CPP is not elected. During such ceremonies, lists
are made of the "new members" of the CPP.
In Prasat Bakong, local CPP organizers repeatedly visited local Funcinpec activists
to enlist their help. "If you help us," they were told by the CPP activists,
"we will give you anything you want." After repeated visits from the CPP
organizers, 'M' finally agreed to make a list of Funcinpec supporters who would like
to receive gifts.
"I was afraid to refuse them," the Funcinpec activist said. "They
would hurt me if I said no, so I just let them use me. After all, it was just to
get gifts." Between June 2 and 4, M collected 133 names of people who were then
brought to a nearby pagoda where they not only received gifts but were made to swear
their allegiance to the CPP.
In another Prasat Bakong village, another Funcinpec activist brought 51 people together
after pressure from his commune chief, local police, and the village chief, who showed
him a sample resignation letter.
The villagers were not in fact given gifts but rather were told they had to take
an oath swearing their allegiance to the CPP. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that
their village chiefs explicitly told them, "We will know if you vote for Funcinpec."
Other episodes have employed more direct forms of coercion. According to local and
international observers, about 400 families attended a gift ceremony organized by
a CPP official in Chikreng district in March 2003.
He announced that he would give 100,000 riel to anyone who voted for the CPP, and
that if the CPP won, he would give an additional 100,000 riel. Those who were willing
to accept this deal were asked to thumbprint a document that they understood to be
a commitment of political support, and at least half the people agreed.
In early June, the official's assistants returned to the village and explained that
the documents were in fact loan agreements. Those who had unwittingly signed them
were told that they would also be charged 2,000 riel per month interest on top of
the principal. On June 22, the same agent returned to the village and told people
that if the CPP was re-elected, the loans would be forgiven.
Provincial CPP authorities deny all allegations but proudly note that they have enrolled
19,000 new members from other parties in the past six weeks. As another provincial
CPP official said, "The CPP will always give what it promises."