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Poll observers wary of potential intimidation

Voters wait in front of a voting station at a Phnom Penh school during the Kingdom’s national elections in 2013.
Voters wait in front of a voting station at a Phnom Penh school during the Kingdom’s national elections in 2013.

Poll observers wary of potential intimidation

With voter registration due to start in six weeks, independent election monitoring organisations said yesterday that the current political climate and recently enacted legislation has them fearing for the safety of their observers.

Koul Panha, head of election watchdog Comfrel, said that in the wake of Kem Ley’s murder, he feared the organisation’s election observers could be subject to attacks and intimidation.

“In the current environment, security, harassment and physical assault – that’s our areas of concern,” Panha said. Also of concern to Panha was the possibility that the NGO and election laws could be used as mechanisms of legal harassment.

“They talk about prohibiting civil society organisations from engaging with political parties with partisanship, that activity has become a punishable offence,” Panha said. “Usually, people have rights that actively encourage them to participate in political life . . . this really violates our constitution. Our observers are mostly voluntary; they should be encouraged to engage as much as they can.”

National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea yesterday said voter registration observers had nothing to fear so long as they “follow the code of conduct, procedure of registration and follow the law”.

He added that the NEC currently has no mechanisms in place to protect observers from physical assaults, but that they can report assaults to their polling station leader.

Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at rights group Licadho, which is planning to monitor the registration process, said she shared Panha’s fears.

“With the recent sub-decree and current tense political environment, the security and protection of observers will be critical, especially their movements in rural areas,” Pilorge wrote.

A sub-decree issued this week tasked RCAF and the police with ensuring the “proper operation of registration for elections”.

Pilorge said the military’s previous involvement in land evictions gave cause for concern over their electoral role. “When the military gets involved, there is a very high chance of serious injuries or even death. With voter registration, there is no logical justification to involve the military,” she said.

However, the NEC’s Puthea said observers had nothing to fear from the army or police, although protecting observers would not be within their remit.

“Their function is first, to protect [against those] who want to destroy [the] election, and second, wait for [requests] from the NEC from the chief of the polling station,” Puthea said. “The role of the observer is to close the mouth, open the ears and write.”

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