Cambodia’s armed forces and police must remain “neutral” and not use their “influence” and “power of position” to intimidate or threaten others during the ongoing commune election campaigning and election day on June 4, according to a National Election Committee code of conduct obtained this week.
The rules would appear especially relevant in light of recent weeks, which have seen high-ranking security officials explicitly threaten would-be opposition protesters with violence and make increasingly bellicose remarks regarding the need to quash so-called “colour revolutions” which they yesterday linked to pro-democracy NGOs in the country.
But even with the rules, both observers and the opposition remained sceptical yesterday of the armed forces’ purported independence, citing their record and leaders, who are “long-time CPP compatriots of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen”.
The 15-page code of conduct for armed forces, National Police and election security was approved last September in anticipation of this year’s commune polls.
NEC member and spokesman Hang Puthea said the code of conduct, which used partial information from previous rules, is mostly differentiated by making the roles of such bodies more “clear” and instituting punishments for violations.
“They must remain neutral, impartial, and they cannot show their support toward or against a political party or candidate, and they need to be aware of that,” the code reads.
In addition to restrictions on campaigning, under the rules, security officials are prohibited from “beating a person”, using “verbal or physical abuse”, and escorting or detaining a person “forcefully” in a way that that may make the “person scared or concerned for their personal safety and their family’s safety”.
Those who violate the code of conduct will face a fine by the NEC of 5 million to 20 million riel, or about $1,250 to $5,000, among other punishments.
The NEC’s Puthea said comments made by Defence Minister Tea Banh that opposition supporters would be “beaten until their teeth come out” if they didn’t accept election results were made before the campaigning period began, and therefore the NEC couldn’t look into the matter.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, said that “Given the recent troubling rhetoric by military and government figures calling into question the independence of Cambodia’s armed forces, this move by the NEC is most welcome.”
But legal expert Sok Sam Oeun – while allowing the rules might help reduce the interference in the election – noted that the ruling party has recently called on the military to support their party.
“Then [their] heart is not neutral, really,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, was less circumspect, saying the code of conduct “will probably join the rest of paper-based restraints that have been brushed aside in the past by the military and the police when responding to orders from their political masters in the CPP”.
“Even a cursory look at the record of the RCAF over the past five years would reveal that the independence of the military is a myth,” he wrote in an email, alluding to violent crackdowns after the 2013 election period.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday insisted the armed forces were neutral when it came to political parties, but weren’t neutral between a party and the elected government.
“So, in case [there’s] any anarchic activities in an attempt to topple the national government, the national forces must complete their duties to protect the nation,” he said.
Additional reporting by Phak Seangly