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Election retribution fears

Election retribution fears

THREE days before polling, independent observers have called on the government

to take steps to prevent post-election retributions that marred the 1998

elections.

The US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and the

UN human rights office said the period immediately after polling and the

announcement of results was particularly sensitive. Threats of retribution had

already emerged in several provinces.

"We will be watching very carefully

what degree of intimidation takes place, not just during but after the elections

as well," the IRI president George A. Folsom said January 31.

The UN

office will release today its recommendations to prevent retribution from losing

candidates. Human rights organizations have recorded cases of coercion and

intimidation in the pre-election period - in some areas voters were warned of

dire consequences if they voted against the incumbent.

"Despite the

secret ballot process, voters were told the authorities would know who voted for

whom," one observer said. In its report, election monitor Anfrel said such

incidents had continued well into the campaigning period. Some candidates in the

Samlot and Kamrieng districts of Battambang were too scared to

campaign.

IRI's Folsom said that to call the February 3 elections free

and fair would be completely inappropriate.

"It is too late for that ... [since] violence and intimidation against the

SRP and Funcinpec activists has prevented qualified candidates from running out

of fear," he said. "And media censorship has prevented them from getting their

message across to voters."

The NEC criticized eight news organizations

for what it termed unbalanced reporting. Among the culprits were four Khmer

language dailies joined by one foreign language newspaper, the Voice of America

and Radio Free Asia.

The NEC's media monitoring unit blamed one newspaper

for using an SRP statement but failing to give equal space to other parties.

Others were accused of inciting political tensions. Vicheth refused to specify

which organizations were guilty of the individual charges.

"These [media

organizations] have violated not only the election code, but also the press

law," he said. "If they have been allowed to continue operating, it is only

because we want to maintain a free press. Had it been Malaysia or Singapore, the

violations would have got them in serious trouble."

That perception was

not shared by election monitor Comfrel, whose report last month highlighted

substantial pro-CPP bias in the media.

"The CPP dominated the political

news and was the only one to be covered by the Phnom Penh-based media [we]

observed, while the government, including the Prime Minister, had the longest

speech opportunities," the report said.

In an apparent reference to human

rights reports highlighting an atmosphere of insecurity, the NEC said the

actions and statements of some of them violated Article 130 of the election law

and would be seen as interference in Cambodia's internal matters and a challenge

to its sovereignty.

However, the NEC's vice-chairman, Kassie Neou,

slammed his own organization. He said polling officials had been appointed at

the last minute and were not properly trained, which left room for manipulation.

"The NEC is allowing them to control the nation's fate," he said,

suggesting NEC members should be appointed independently, rather than by the

government, to ensure its neutrality.

Campaigning brought traffic chaos

to Phnom Penh as thousands of supporters from the three main parties and the

smaller Khmer Improvement Party descended on the city. The 15 day period was

largely peaceful, although complaints of irregularities emerged after ten

days.

Comfrel said the most common complaints involved tearing up rival

party's campaign materials, and conflicts between candidates and local

authorities.

"These officials could not maintain their neutrality," the

NGO said.

The predominantly peaceful campaigning period was marred when

Funcinpec activist Las Kouk and his wife Math Chaes were shot dead January 28

after being robbed in Pursat.

In another case, a CPP commune council

candidate was targeted January 25 at his home in Banteay Meancheay province.

Ling Panlok's assailants missed him, but killed his 2-year-old son. Local police

did not believe the attempt was politically motivated.

Meanwhile the

SRP's leading candidate in Bak Sna commune in Kampong Thom, Khor Sok, 57, died

of heart attack January 21.

Om Yentieng, chairman of the Cambodian Human

Rights Committee and special advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said violence

needed to end. He added that continued violence didn't necessarily mean that the

government wanted it to happen.

"The US didn't want the attacks on its

World Trade Centre and couldn't prevent them either, after all," he

said

Polling is scheduled to begin at 7am on February 3. Staff will count

the votes between 3 and 5pm. No more than 700 voters have been assigned to each

station.

The NEC said initial results from Phnom Penh and surrounding

provinces should arrive around 9 pm on voting day. Final results would be known

February 21, although the NEC hoped the overall picture would be clear by

February 15, "provided there were no troubles".

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