With the commune election now just days away, Cambodia National Rescue Party candidates in four provinces say they believe their communes have been stacked with soldiers who have enrolled as voters despite not residing in the area and, in some cases, are actively campaigning for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
In interviews conducted over the past two weeks, candidates in Kandal, Kampong Speu, Preah Vihear and Takeo provinces said voter lists in their areas were swamped with outside troops, influxes that in three of the cases appear to be reflected in irregularities with the voter lists themselves.
The CNRP first raised concerns with the National Election Committee about soldiers registering far from their homes or bases in Siem Reap, Battambang and Preah Vihear provinces last year.
Though the Election Law states anyone registering to cast a vote must “have an address/residence in the commune”, the NEC dismissed the party’s complaint and, further, ruled troops could register in any commune they were assigned to provide security for on election day, or were based in on a long-term mission.
But with most military commanders also holding high-ranking positions within the CPP, the CNRP called the NEC decision a “loophole” that could be used to swing communes in favour of the ruling party.
This worry has been borne out, according to some candidates, who believe soldiers in their commune will impact the vote through weight of numbers or intimidation.
“Before we thought we could win and get the commune chief seat,” said Sok Chhum, the second CNRP candidate for Roka commune in Kandal’s Kandal Stung district.
“But people are not confident now; more than 200 soldiers have been sent here.”
Roka – where opposition members say there’s been an influx of troops from Hun Sen’s personal Bodyguard Unit – is among several communes where there are irregularities between the gender balance in the voter lists and the 2015 adult population data from the government’s commune data base.
Similar irregularities, which appear to shed some light on large concentrations of troops, also show up in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong and Preah Vihear’s Srayang commune, where hundreds of troops have been recalled to their unit’s main headquarters from border bases for the election period.
Meanwhile, huge gender imbalances at polling stations visible in the NEC data also appears to lend credence to claims by local opposition officials that several “soldier only” polling stations have been established near military bases in Phnom Penh, an arrangement that an election monitor said would seriously compromise the soldiers’ anonymity and “make them easy to control” (see sidebar).
Takeo province’s Ou Saray commune, in Tram Kak district, has also received an influx of soldiers, according to CNRP commune chief candidate Soeung Ngorn, who said he was “concerned” after 447 soldiers, including 287 nonresident troops, registered as voters in the electorate.
The voting list discrepancies raise more questions about the neutrality of the military, following weeks of bellicose rhetoric from the leaders of the Kingdom’s security forces, including a warning to opposition protesters who challenge the election’s outcome by Defence Minister Tea Banh.
“When they lose the election, but refuse to accept and come demanding this and that, we will not allow it,” he said last month. “They will be beaten until their teeth come out.”
Roka commune and its half a dozen or so villages sit among small lakes and lush rice fields dotted with sugar palms.
It is an area where the CPP’s winning margin eroded during the 2013 national election, when the CNRP came within 263 ballots of winning the commune’s popular vote.
It should be a prime target for the CNRP this Sunday. But the opposition’s commune chief candidate for the area, Ek Pha, has lost his optimism.
“In the whole commune they send maybe 260 soldiers in order to make sure they win the [commune council chief] seat,” said Pha, who is also a deputy commune chief.
Pha and his local opposition colleagues say the soldiers come from the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit, which has a training facility in neighbouring Daeum Rues commune – also the native home of the unit’s commander, Hing Bun Heang, a central committee member of the CPP.
They turned up in small groups during the voter registration period late last year and quickly received residency paperwork stating they were from the commune’s Run village, said CNRP activist Sos Sokon.
“Some were in uniform, some were not,” said Sokon, speaking from his home near the commune office.
“They were brought to the CPP headquarters where they changed into normal clothes.”
The influx of soldiers shows up on the NEC voter list. It shows 331 people are registered as voters in Run, 250 of whom are male.
According to Bun Vorn, the CPP village deputy chief for Run, the village has just 224 residents, including children.
In an interview at his home, however, Vorn claimed only 10 bodyguards were among the extra registrants, saying the rest were relatives of residents who came from other provinces and wanted to vote in the relatively remote village.
However, Chhum, the second CNRP candidate for Roka, disputed this, saying they knew the men to be bodyguards. “They cannot cheat now. It is clear; we can see the voter lists,” Chhum said.
When asked whether soldiers had registered in communes where they didn’t live, Bodyguard Unit Commander Hing Bun Heang called the question “stupid” and said his troops were correctly registered were they were based.
“If the bodyguards are stationed at Kraing Chek, they will vote in Kraing Chek. If they are in Takhmao, they vote in Takmao. If they’re in Phnom Penh, they vote in Phnom Penh . . . They vote where they are based,” Bun Heang said, admonishing reporters not to rely on accusations from the opposition.
Pha, the CNRP commune chief, disputed this assertion, saying the soldiers had been deployed to campaign on behalf of their commanders, lieutenant generals Pech Sody and Reth Sitha, who were the heads of the CPP working group assigned to win support in the commune.
“[The soldiers] come here with their bosses to campaign,” he said. “They dress in civilian clothes and walk around in the village to campaign for people to support the CPP.”
One local vendor in Run Suon Song who requested anonymity said about 200 soldiers from the CPP working group had registered in the commune and often appeared in the village, out of uniform, to campaign. Nonetheless, he said he wasn’t intimidated by the group.
“They mostly just sit and drink beer,” he said.
Samrong Tong commune
Campaigning for the opposition in Kampong Speu province’s Samrong Tong commune has been a tense experience, according to the CNRP commune chief candidate Hoeurng Som Ngom.
The current deputy commune chief attributes an atmosphere of intimidation, which has led a few of the opposition’s ballot box monitors to pull out, to the influx of what he estimates are more than 1,000 soldiers into the area.
“In this commune we are scared, we feel intimidated and weak,” he said, adding he was unsure if the party could make further gains at the local level after it increased its share of the vote in 2013.
“Before we had soldiers here too, but now more come so they can take both our two seats. Now all the soldiers come [so] they won’t miss out on a vote.”
The troops belong to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ Artillery Unit and have been temporarily recalled from a long deployment on Cambodia’s northern border to register in the commune, where the unit’s headquarters is located.
This was confirmed by a member of the unit, Sour Samath, who said he arrived back from his Preah Vihear base last week on the orders of his superiors, who he said had recalled the “majority” of the troops.
“Some took taxis, others took trucks, about 100 to 200 soldiers [were transported in] two to three trucks at one time,” said Samath, who has been stationed at the northern border base for 10 years, and who said he was not told to guard the polling station.
“We came here to register and to vote. I don’t know how many [soldiers came back] . . . but the majority. After the election we go back.”
Though Samath has a house in the commune, where his wife and children live, many of the soldiers did not, according to a local resident.
“Some [of the soldiers who returned] have houses here and some have houses in other provinces [they stay] in the base,” said the resident, who requested his name not be used out of fear of retribution from neighbor.
“There are about 10 military families in this village but about 50 percent of the registered voters are soldiers. During the election we see them and after we don’t see them.”
The voter lists also suggest an irregularity. The number of male voters who registered in Samrong Tong in 2016 is 33 percent higher than the commune’s male voting-age population, according to population data from the year before. While the intervening year may account for some fluctuation, it bears noting that the number of female registrants in the commune deviates from the 2015 female population by just half a percent.
Like in Kandal’s Roka commune, soldiers in Samrong Tong were also campaigning with the CPP working group, led by the chief of the artillery unit, Nob Ratana, said Hoeurng Som. “A few days ago Nob Ratana came to distribute clothes, 10,000 riel and CPP T-shirts at the pagoda,” said Som.
Ratana could not be reached for comment. According to one CPP member in the commune, Samrith Leng, the artillery soldiers worked to complement the campaigning of local activists. “Their job is to strengthen our spirit and provide food,” he said.
Legal but ‘systematic’
Allegations of troops campaigning for the ruling party have been long cited by election watchdog Comfrel in its postelection reviews.
During the 2013 ballot, troops were witnessed being trucked to polling stations in Siem Reap, which Cambodia’s Constitutional Council ruled “unlawful”, but deemed it did not influence the final outcome.
Speaking this week, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea reaffirmed the body’s position on troop registration, saying the “problem has been solved” by the directive allowing soldiers to register at the stations they are guarding.
And even though the NEC code of conduct and the law that regulates military personnel instruct soldiers to be politically neutral, an updated Election Law, negotiated by both parties following the disputed 2013 election, allows troops and civil servants to campaign off-duty and out of uniform.
Though apparently legal, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said that the current state of play still constituted manipulation of voter lists, and dismissed the idea troops can be considered neutral if they’re allowed to campaign when off duty.
“We complained but there was nothing we could do to push the NEC to take action,” Sochua said, adding she would push for a review of the rules before the 2018 national election.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, however, rejected the assertion that the party had registered troops strategically, calling such an assessment biased to the opposition party.
“Before the election, the National Election Committee checked whether they had enough qualifications to vote or not. The [NEC] is not stupid and they know about it,” he said. “[The soldiers] can vote where their mission is and this is not wrong.”
For Pen Lam, the opposition chief of Srayang commune in Preah Vihear province’s Kulen district, the recall of 300 troops from a border base into his constituency was no coincidence.
He won the local election in 2012 by just 92 votes. Lam initially refused to register the 300 soldiers, saying he did not recognise them as residents.
He was overruled, however, by the NEC after a complaint by the commander of the men’s unit, Brigade 41, whose base is in the region.
“In the previous mandate there were less than 100 soldiers here but when they know that the opposition won, they come to compete for the commune. That’s why they put more soldiers.” Lam said.
“This is a systematic arrangement.”