About 2,000 protesters from the country’s largest opposition party gathered at Freedom Park near Wat Phnom yesterday to call for reform within the National Election Committee, during the first large-scale rally by the newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Wearing white headbands bearing the words “free elections” written on them and carrying signs that said “New and credible voter’s list”, “Support free and fair elections in Cambodia” and “Support civil society recommendations”, the demonstrators listened to speeches by opposition figures including party vice president Kem Sokha and legislator Mu Sochua.
Speaking via loudspeaker on a raised platform, Sokha said the NEC and the government had not heeded the advice of numerous election watchdogs, rights monitors and foreign officials for improving the quality of the electoral process and the much-criticised voter registration list.
“If the NEC and the royal government still take the wrong voters’ list to use without correction, this means that there is a real attempt to abuse the rights of voters and turn away from the free, democratic multiparty process,” Sokha said.
He added that if the upcoming national elections in July are not conducted transparently, the winner would be nothing other than an illegal government.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former aide to the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, and a new member of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, had even harsher words for the country’s main electoral body.
“As far I’m concerned, we’re living in a neo-communist regime,” and the NEC is a symbol of that regime, he told the Post.
The opposition has long lamented the composition of the election committee, which many think is unfairly composed of ruling Cambodian People’s Party cronies. But cries of foul play started to get louder at the end of March, when the National Democratic Institute and other nonprofit groups released the 2013 Cambodia Voter Registry audit.
Presenting evidence of a dip in voter registration, names deleted without cause and voters whose existence could not be verified, the audit urged the NEC to make the registration list available in an analysable format and to accept international monitors at polling stations. The election committee called the findings into question and did nothing.
At the protest yesterday, opposition leaders demanded the NEC review the registration list and appealed to the international community to put pressure on the government. The leaders also said party president Sam Rainsy, who is living abroad to avoid serving prison terms for what many view as politically motivated convictions, must be allowed to return to participate in the election.
Security at the rally was significant. Police and military police manned corners of the park near barricades blocking off intersections. Organisers of the protest had said they would march to the NEC offices, against strict orders not to from Phnom Penh City Hall.
Confrontation was avoided when a representative of the NEC, who identified himself as San Taing Sidoeun, showed up flanked by security, took the stage, and promised to deliver the petition. He left as quickly as he arrived. Protestors said the NEC had a week to come up with a resolution or face another demonstration.
NEC secretary-general Tep Nytha needed only a few hours. He said yesterday that he’s seen the demands before. “There is no law requiring another review of the voter list.” Nytha said. “We follow NEC law. They cannot put pressure on us.”
Indeed, there appears to be little sign of the NEC bowing under pressure. On Monday, the European Union said it would not be sending election monitors to the 2013 parliamentary elections in July. Instead, it planned on dispatching two experts, described vaguely in a statement as “specialists to help the EU institutions understand the vicissitudes of the local context”.