KAMPOT - Chheng Phon garnered international praise this year for leading the revival
of Cambodian culture after it was reduced to ashes in Pol Pot's brutal attempt to
create the perfect communist agrarian state. Now the leadership of the Cambodian
People's Party hopes the ex-minister can impress the international community again
next year by leading a revival of Cambodia's faltering democracy.
With the National Assembly passage of the election law imminent, political leaders
have begun fronting their candidates for the National Election Commission, the 11-member
panel charged with administering the polls and ultimately judging whether the campaign
and balloting were carried out in a free and fair manner.
Chheng Phon, minister of culture and information during the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian
government of the 1980s, has emerged as the CPP's choice for president of the commission.
After gaining Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's approval, Minister of Interior Sar
Kheng visited Chheng Phon at his Center for Culture and Vipassana in Takhmao to make
a personal appeal for the 67-year-old artist-turned-spiritualist to lead the election,
CPP insiders revealed.
The response: "If you ask me personally, I must say that I do not want this
job," Chheng Phon said last weekend at his secluded retreat on the banks of
the Teuk Chu Canal in Kampot town. "I am happy here where it is quiet and I
can meditate. The presidency will not be a happy job."
Despite this lack of enthusiasm, Chheng Phon said a strong sense of duty to his homeland
allowed Sar Kheng to convince him that he should temporarily sacrifice the quiet
life if the parliament selects him.
"When all concerned ask me to provide a service for them, for all Cambodians,
I can [accept the position]," he said. "I will be a servant for this national
mission if my wisdom is needed, but I will not do it for personal ambition. I have
no personal ambitions."
Chheng Phon, who has spent much of the 1990s immersing himself in the teachings of
the Buddha, speaks with the serenity of a monk. He sits with his palms pressed together
in front of him, eyes often closing shut as he concentrates on the many questions
a front-runner for top electoral organizer and watchdog must answer.
"In democracy the people are at the top - they are the most important. In Buddhism
it is the same," he reasoned. "Buddha is democracy, from the king to the
His words also reveal his beginnings as an educator and his later rise to prominence
as an actor, director and professor of the arts. His passion for theater and performance
received outside attention in September when he was awarded grand prize of the 1997
Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes for a life spent promoting and preserving his country's
Does he consider himself the right man for the job? "I am not a big personality,
I am an artist. I have a big heart, not the mind and organizational skills of a politician,"
he answered. "But if my wisdom is needed for this national mission, okay."
Nor does he have any love for politics. He admittedly has not read a newspaper or
listened to the radio much since he left his ministry job in 1989. Although he is
aware of political instability and that military confrontations between rival factions
are chronic Cambodian problems, he shies away from questions on current events by
merely answering, "It is difficult to comment on what you do not know."
His plan for successful elections in a country chronically plagued by factionalism
and violence: education.
"For Cambodia, I understand that democracy is still young, but it will evolve,"
he said. "Educating the people is the most important job. If we want to gain
somebody's trust, we must teach him and show him."
But because time is short, Chheng Phon advocates that the greatest efforts of the
commission should be to ensure that political leaders understand the meaning of democracy.
"To teach the people to trust themselves would take too long, because they lost
trust in everything a short time ago during the Pol Pot time," he said. "Right
now we have only a short time, so we will ask the leadership to work with each other.
If the party leaders agree to work with each other, the people will follow."
Other candidates for the presidency have been backed by the CPP's electoral competitors.
The self-exiled Union of Cambodian Democrats would like to see King Norodom Sihanouk
head the commission. A member of the UCD delegation visiting Phnom Penh to assess
the political climate said on Dec. 11 that King Sihanouk told delegation members
he would accept the presidency if there is support from both sides of Cambodia's
"The UCD fully supports the King. Constitutionally, he is the only one who is
neutral," Pen Dareth of the Khmer Neutral Party said. "He told us that
he is ready to be the president of the election commission if all of the Cambodian
leadership wants him."
But according to the King's own monthly bulletin, Hun Sen does not want to see Sihanouk
as the nation's top electoral officer.
"Our Great Leader made it known to [the King], c/o His Excellency Samdech Chea
Sim, that he does not want Norodom Sihanouk to preside over the commission responsible
for organizing or supervising the 1998 legislative elections," columnist Huon
Kasik wrote in an Oct 22 commentary published in the Royal bulletin personally edited
by the monarch.
"[The King] asked His Excellency Samdech Chea Sim to completely reassure the
great leader: Norodom Sihanouk will not accept to preside over the commission of
these (unfree and unfair) 1998 legislative elections in Cambodia."
Lao Mong Hay, head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, and Say Boran, a Cambodian
diplomat who has spent most of the last two decades living abroad, are other names
that have surfaced in connection with the commission presidency.
One CPP source argued that with the King apparently out of contention, Chheng Phon
represents the only remaining candidate that is a "national figure" who
voters will recognize and trust during the campaign.
Pen Dareth disagreed, saying Chheng Phon's decision-making as president would be
biased by his common past with the CPP's top leadership. "He was a minister
of the CPP. How could you consider him neutral?"
Loy Sim Chheang, Funcinpec secretary-general and the first vice president of the
National Assembly, has also been mentioned as an alternative candidate palatable
to both the CPP and the UCD, but he said last week that he is not ready to abandon
his political life.
"I am not interested because I have my new party," Loy Sim Chheang said.
"This committee should be neutral and led by the King as a symbol of unity and
But Chheng Phon appears set for a smooth nomination with the Ministry of Interior
in charge of recommending commission candidates to the Council of Ministers.
Final approval by the National Assembly also looks secure with 51 CPP parliamentarians
likely commanding a majority with the help of its allies-five BLDP MPs loyal to Ieng
Mouly, one from Molinaka and as many as ten from Funcinpec who Nguon Soeur says will
join his Khmer Citizen Party.
Lao Mong Hay, who may fill the commission's vice presidency, met with Chheng Phon
shortly after they were both named as candidates. Afterward, he said Chheng Phon
would refuse to wear western clothing if made president, and the rest of the commission
would be required to wear white.
But the ex-minister denied the report, saying the suggestion was not meant to be
taken seriously. "I was joking with Dr Lao Mong Hay when I said that all 11
commission members must wear robes and shave their head. Nobody would really do this."
He did, however, make one request when Sar Kheng appealed for him to lead the election.
"The losing party cannot get angry with the winning party," he said in
reference to the secession of eastern provinces by CPP members after they lost to
Funcinpec in the 1993 UN-sponsored election.
The post-election standoff ultimately led to the creation of the dual-premiership
government that turned against itself in July. Despite instances of vote fraud and
intimidation during that campaign, the United Nations declared the election a success
and endorsed the results.
Should the 1998 campaign see a return of intimidation, violence and fraud, Chheng
Phon said it will be the voter turnout, not the National Election Commission president,
that will measure the validity of the results.
"The people will know if the election is fair," he said. "If the people
don't trust the officials in charge of the ballot boxes, they will not come out to
NOVEMBER looks to be the most likely month for the 1998 national election, but Hun
Sen and other officials are still pushing for an earlier date.
At press time, a special committee convened by National Assembly President Chea Sim
had proposed Nov 22 as the new date after determining that holding the polls in May
would be technically impossible.
But Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, a strong supporter of holding the polls as scheduled
on May 23, said he opposed such a six-month delay.
He told reporters Dec 17 that he had informed Minister of Interior Sar Kheng (CPP)
that the government is still insisting on the original date, but that the decision
will ultimately be up to the parliament.
"The government proposed May 23, but if it needs to be prolonged for technical
or legal reason, we think that it should not be delayed for more than a month,"
Hun Sen said.
Information Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith, a CPP spokesman, explained that the
government wants elections in May because it would give Phnom Penh politicians an
advantage over their self-exiled counterparts.
"For the government, May is the best. The sooner, the better. As you know the
government side has an advantage because we are better prepared for the campaign."
Khmer Nation Party President Sam Rainsy supported the call for the ballot to be held
in May, telling reporters Dec 17 that to delay the ballot would be illegal.
If technical reasons forced a delay, the National Election Commission should make
that decision, said Rainsy, and a caretaker government should be formed in the interim.
Minister of Interior You Hockry (Funcinpec) earlier suggested moving the date to
July to avoid making a request to King Norodom Sihanouk to extend the five-year mandate
of the current National Assembly.
Under the Constitution, the King can approve an extension "in times of war or
other special circumstances" if two-thirds of the Assembly request it.
Peter Schier, a representative from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation closely monitoring
the election process, said he was also in favor of the November date.
"For technical reasons, it is impossible to hold free and fair elections in
May. The registration is impossible and the political climate would not be in favor
of free and fair election," Schier said.