THE head of a new observer group has in recent weeks challenged what he believes
is an entrenched bias in Washington against Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and the
Former Australian Ambassador Tony Kevin, interviewed upon his return to Phnom Penh,
says his Volunteer Observers for the Cambodian Election (VOCE) is accredited to the
Joint International Observation Group (JIOG). It hopes to be associated with a post-election
statement from JIOG that will amount to the final foreign judgement of the polls.
VOCE includes some influential Cambodia-based foreigners among its 30 observers,
including Barbara Fitzgerald of Apheda in Kampot; Australian Overseas Service Bureau
consultant Sister Joan Healy; Andrew McNaughton, formerly of the International Development
Research Center and now head of his own consultancy; and Eva Mysliwiec, who is now
a Cambodian citizen and director of the Cambodian Development Research Institute,
although like many she is repesenting herself in VOCE.
Also members are John McAuliff, the executive director of the US-Indochina Recociliation
Project (USIRC), and consultant Sally Benson, former chair of the Campaign to Oppose
the Return of the Khmer Rouge.
Kevin said that VOCE has been set up to provide a balanced, impartial judgement of
the Cambodian electoral process.
He stressed he was speaking personally and not on behalf of other VOCE members. He
said VOCE's genesis was his "somewhat notorious" Far Eastern Economic Review
article in May which was later posted on the CamNews Internet site. In it Kevin challenged
US foreign policy toward Cambodia and offered the opinion that Hun Sen and the CPP
were being unfairly vilified.
That prompted the USIRC to invite Kevin on a US speaking tour which he began shortly
before the "Friends of Cambodia" meeting in Bangkok, where senior US State
Department official Stanley Roth spoke about the progress Cambodia was making toward
free and fair elections.
"I was told not to push too hard at a door that was already beginning to open,"
said Kevin, who was ambassador here from 1994-97. He focused his Washington speeches
instead on the "entrenched view of the National Democratic Institute (NDI),
International Republican Institute (IRI), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, and the editorial
writers of The Washington Post and The New York Times".
Their views and opinions, Kevin said, highlighted "intimidation, extra judicial
killings, fraud and impunity" and suggested that nothing had changed since Hun
Sen's ouster of Funcinpec last July. "But a lot has changed... there's been
enormous progress especially since February," Kevin said.
Cambodia became a "pariah state" after last July largely as a result of
US response to the July events, he said.
Kevin said that foreigners had an inherent problem understanding Cambodia. "Our
information largely comes through royalists or the [opposition Sam] Rainsy Party;
there are fewer accessible sources from within CPP... so there's a heavy bias of
He said that Rainsy and his wife Tioulong Saumura were "charismatic, persuasive
individuals and attractive personalities". This along with the "fascination"
the US had with royalty and its "deep-seated antagonism toward post-Communist
regimes" had created a "unique consensus about Cambodia among conservatives
and liberals in Washington."
Kevin said he was not an apologist for the "tragic and serious human rights
violations" that have been associated with Hun Sen. He has previously acknowledged
"circumstantial evidence pointing to responsibility of security forces close
to Hun Sen for the March 30 grenade attack" on a Rainsy-led demonstration.
Kevin said he found a consensus in Washington opinion-making circles that Hun Sen
stole the 1993 election; staged a coup against a relatively innocent victim last
July; is personally linked to everything bad that happens in Cambodia; and that he
will ensure an election win by whatever means possible.
Kevin acknowledged in Washington that heavy-handed tactics, intimidation and the
denial of electronic media to the opposition, but felt that "important positives"
were nonetheless being widely ignored.
"I don't think it's productive or proactive to say there are only heroes and
villians [here]. That doesn't lead to good policy," he said. "[And] if
this election is going to be fraudulent, why can't anyone tell me what the result
is going to be?" he asks.
Kevin said he concluded from his Washington visit that a series of NDI and IRI public
statements that the Cambodian election would be inevitably flawed were questionable.
The statements were judgements offered before the event and were potentially "intimidatory"
to Cambodian voters, he said.
Such statements would inevitably become known to the Cambodian electorate through
Khmer-language short-wave radio and would send a clear message about the potential
direction of US policy after the election, he said.
Paul Grove, the deputy director of the IRI Asia Division and former chief of delegation,
rejected the notion that statements from IRI and NDI, either jointly or separately,
"We think that rather [the statements] provide help and proof that the international
community is watching... that the doors are open," Grove said.
Senior adviser at NDI, Peter Manikas, said all the statements had been fair and emphasized
both postive and negative aspects of the entire electoral process.
The groups' recent joint statement that the election "was fundamentally flawed
was based on the fact that the election period was ushered in by a bloody coup, and
in the aftermath more than 100 people were killed or disappeared, the political opposition
fled into exile fearing for their lives... and that the entire electoral process
"We have an ethical obligation both to the international community and the Cambodian
people to report accurately on the entire political environment that's pushing the
"To ignore the obvious facts would be a serious abdication of that responsibility,"
Kevin said he didn't believe in the existence of an anti-CPP "conspiracy"
or "cabal". He said: "People focus on their own agenda. If you've
devoted your whole life to saving the whale, I think eventually you believe that
saving the whale is the most important issue in the world."
"I have a broader concept of human rights. Of course I support human rights,"
he said, but that also included the rights of people not to be subject to civil war,
to enjoy economic development denied to them after July, and to be protected against
"People have fallen under the spell of Sam Rainsy, and feel they're helping
Cambodia by helping Sam Rainsy... For us to go on picking good guys and bad guys
is not helping Cambodia to solve the 30-year war between the royalists and the post-communists."