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Government readying 80,000 security forces for July election

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Military troop carriers parked near a polling station in Ta Siem commune were soldiers were trucked in to vote in last year's local elections. The government has announced it will deploy 80,000 security personnel for this year's ballot. Shaun Turton

Government readying 80,000 security forces for July election

Some 80,000 security personnel will be deployed for July’s upcoming national election, including a volunteer “citizen” force, raising concerns from election and rights observers about possible voter intimidation.

State newswire AKP reported the numbers on Thursday, writing that the forces “will be deployed to ensure security and public order”.

The number marks a notable rise on the 50,000 personnel deployed for the commune elections, and the 70,000 deployed for the 2013 national election.

Of the total, 20,000 will be made up of “citizen forces” selected by the ruling party, according to election expert Yoeurng Sotheara.

In an interview Thursday, Sotheara said the number of security personnel was “unbelievable” and a “waste [of] a lot of money” and did not reflect the government’s claims that Cambodia is “a peaceful country with political stability”.

According to Sotheara, the citizen forces – also known as village security guards – are selected by village chiefs and therefore potentially prone to political bias.

Due to the voluntary nature of the position, they also may “not be well-trained” on human rights obligations and political neutrality. Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, echoed this concern in an email, calling for “stringent training” and doing away with the use of citizen forces.

“Not only are they not properly trained to act as security forces, which opens the door to potential human rights abuses; this would also contribute to the existing atmosphere of mass surveillance,” she said.

More important than physical security, she said, is protecting Cambodians’ “security to freely exercise their fundamental human rights”.

Dim Sovannarom, a spokesman for the NEC, declined to comment, directing questions to the National Police. Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith – who is presiding over a three-day training session this week for security forces – could not be reached.

A Post investigation in 2017 found that troops, who are allowed to register to vote where they are deployed, arrived en masse in certain hotly contested communes before the local elections, likely swinging the vote in the ruling party's favour in some areas.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told pro-government outlet Fresh News on Thursday that the ministry is prepared to deal with any “chaos” related to the elections caused by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy or his supporters.

Rainsy has called for election boycotts, a stance he reiterated in Japan last week. Calling the election “meaningless” without the presence of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was forcibly dissolved at the government's behest in November, he appealed to voters to abstain in order to undermine Prime Minister Hun Sen’s legitimacy.

While Rainsy has dangled the possibility of calling for protests, there has been no evidence there will be any attempt at mobilisation during the election. He did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Mu Sochua, a former CNRP vice president, said Thursday that if the party is not reinstated then the opposition will formally call for a boycott of the elections, which would precede any talk of protests.

Prime Minister Hun Sen himself took to Facebook on Thursday to trumpet the importance of peace and security, which he has maintained can only exist under his watch. He praised his negotiations with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the 1990s, saying that doing so stopped “chronic war”.

“At the time, my aunt asked me: When you go into the Khmer Rouge zone, aren't you afraid of being shot dead? I replied: ‘If I died, it would only be me and those who went with me [who died]. But if I returned, I would get [peace] for all the land. It is true, from then until now, Cambodian territory has national unity for 20 years,” he said.

“At all costs, we together must protect peace.”

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