NEC president Chheng Phon blesses a PEC member, one of 11 women among the 133 new positions recently filled.
TAKHMAO, Kandal province - National Election Commission President Chheng Phon converted
his Center for Culture and Vipassana for three days this month into an election sanitarium
for newly hired Provincial Election Commission (PEC) members.
In the shade of this sprawling Buddhist retreat in the wooded outskirts of the capital,
the 23 PECs were taught the rules, procedures and morality of democracy. But foreign
election observers have serious doubts whether this training will sink into the minds
of the many provincial election officials who have strong ties to political parties,
especially the CPP.
Cambodian election officials must renounce all their former positions before beginning
work on the 1998 polls, but the presence of high-level members of the CPP's provincial
networks is the latest hint that the ruling party plans to influence the election
as much as possible in order to obtain the desired result - a resounding CPP victory.
The 133 members of the PEC and 51 support staff were hired late last month when all
11 members of the NEC split up and combed the provinces for qualified candidates.
Applicants associated with opposition parties were rarely short-listed and it appears
that a disturbing proportion of those hired are CPP-affiliated, according to election
officials and human rights workers.
The selection process was supposed to follow strict NEC guidelines that called for
each PEC to be led by a retired Cambodian "wise person" and contain at
least one woman and one NGO worker, but the guidelines were not followed in many
instances, one diplomat said.
A story related by a reliable source was that one NEC member stepped off a plane
at a provincial airport and was handed a list of PEC candidates by the CPP provincial
governor on the tarmac. The election official immediately got back into the aircraft
and headed back to Phnom Penh, his work complete.
NEC member Chea Chamroeun - the NGO representative who allegedly bought his way into
the election body with the help of top-level CPP officials - selected the cabinet
chiefs of CPP governors to chair the PECs in both provinces under his charge.
In Kampong Thom, provincial cabinet director Diep Piry has been named PEC chairman.
Neou Sar, the deputy director of the provincial rural development office, is the
vice-chair. Both were officials in the CPP provincial standing committee before taking
their new jobs, and the four other Kampong Thom PEC members were card-carrying CPP
The story is much the same in Kampong Cham where the PEC will be led by Yin Bun Tith,
the cabinet chief of Hun Neng, long-time CPP governor and brother of Second Prime
Minister Hun Sen.
Chea Chamroeun defended his selections, saying every citizen of a province is eligible
to join its PEC except the governor, deputy governors, district and commune chiefs,
monks and members of the armed forces.
"We are not worried about these members' neutrality because these people will
carry out their jobs in accordance with the rule of law," Chamroeun said. "So
long as the rule of law is adhered to, neutrality will be ensured."
Election workers reported that many NEC members felt forced to accept the recommendations
of "hardline" provincial and municipal authorities. Had they not compromised,
they would have at best received no cooperation from the administrations during the
election, and at worst been subject to working in a hostile atmosphere.
CPP is not the only political organization that has apparently been stacking PEC
decks in its favor.
In the former Khmer Rouge-controlled city of Pailin, four of its five PEC members
are from Ieng Sary's Democratic National Union Movement -Mei Meakk, Ream Somean,
Phann Pichr and Kong Nguon. One of them is said to be the former personal secretary
of Pol Pot, but scholors of the Khmer Rouge have been unable to confirm.
"None of the Pailin names ring a bell," said Craig Etcheson, formerly of
the Cambodian Genocide Program. "But you know how these guys use aliases, like
they were changing their underwear."
Pailin PEC chairman Mei Meakk, formerly a Khmer Rouge commander and more recently
a high-ranking DNUM official, insisted during the PEC training course that he had
quit all his previous positions and that the Pailin PEC would organize a credible
"We will implement what we have learned from this seminar. We in the PEC will
remain neutral and we will allow all parties to participate," said Mei Meakk.
He added that municipal authorities have already received requests from more than
ten parties to open up offices in Pailin and contest its single National Assembly
Having pulled out of the 1993 UN-sponsored polls along with the rest of the now-crumbling
Khmer Rouge, Pailin will give democratic elections a first try in 1998.
Mei Meakk is upbeat about democracy's maiden journey through the former heartland
of the Khmer Rouge. In order to prepare the masses for their first trip to the ballot
box, he said the former rebels in the northwest have employed their most famous propaganda
device, the radio station.
"The people in Pailin have already been taught about democracy by our radio
station. Now they have a good understanding," the PEC chairman said. "They
are happy to participate."
Despite reassurances that everything will be free, fair and credible, diplomats working
closely with the elections called the formation of the PECs another calculated move
by the CPP to set its political opponents up for checkmate well before the polling
The move, they say, is like others by the CPP in the recent past - bold enough to
get the desired result, but subtle enough not to anger those holding the purse strings
in Tokyo, Brussels, Canberra, and probably soon Washington.
Election technicians from the EU reportedly requested the NEC to shuffle the PEC
members around to move those with suspected biases out of top positions. This recommendation
was apparently ignored.
One diplomat told the Post that his election cynicism has now evolved into
a feeling of full-blown hopelessness. With the number of confirmed political killings
equaling UNTAC's bodycount almost three months before the election campaign even
begins, he bemoaned that there is now little hope of obtaining a free and fair atmosphere
before polling day. The make-up of the PECs, he added, is hardly surprising.
Rights organizations and foreign parliaments continue to insist on high democratic
standards and investigations into political violence, but in the absence of serious
pressure from donor countries' administrations, the diplomat said political powerbrokers
have received a signal that it is alright to use oppressive tactics as long as no
direct physical harm is done to a major political player such as Prince Norodom Ranariddh
or Sam Rainsy.
"We're supposed to be observing and maintaining certain standards for the entire
electoral process, but all anyone seems to care about is Cambodians simply casting
their ballots on election day," he complained.
Other foreign observers say that too much is being expected of Cambodia in only their
second democratic election in more than two decades. Of course the PECs have a lot
of former CPP members, they say, because most of the provincial, district and commune
administrations are dominated by CPP-loyal civil servants.
"We can't be judgmental," one foreign election worker said, noting that
he was a party official in his own country before being hired as a neutral election
organizer. "If the CPP has 3 million members out of 5.5 million voters, they
are going to be well represented."
The pragmatic approach appears to be that yes, the CPP is doing all it can to lock
up the election, but that should be expected in a country where true democracy might
not emerge for another 15 or 20 years.
"Cambodia is still a one-party state," the election worker said. "We
can't force a multi-party system on them. If we try, it will be totally artificial."
Despite the reality, the publicity of the international community's involvement in
Cambodia will always be one of a successful democratic transplant, according to one
diplomat. Although the patient is rejecting the new tissue, the prognosis will always
be rosy because of the money and effort invested in the bold Cambodian experiment.
"My opinion is that the only reason that so much focus and assistance continues
in Cambodia under these conditions is that the international community must maintain
the appearance that UNTAC was some kind of great success."
Meanwhile, the PEC members have left Chheng Phon's Buddhist center and have headed
back to their provincial homes to open offices, hire more staff and begin the search
for about 4,800 Commune Election Commission (CEC) members.
Because the NEC is so strapped for cash, the PECs have been given $600 each to begin
these tasks. The money, small Cambodian notes bound into thick bricks, was doled
out of huge burlap sacks after a serene swearing-in ceremony on the last day of training.
Chheng Phon, who personally led the sessions focusing on morality, told the Post
he was proud of the three-day training session, but he did lament that time constraints
have kept election education to the bare minimum. In turn, he said CEC training would
be even more rushed.
"The people all across the country are relying on you," Chheng Phon told
the PECs at the closing ceremony. "You are the ones who will find truth and
justice for the people... Don't let the difficulties spoil this process. If you spoil
this process, you will spoil everything."