Ta Siem, a remote commune in Siem Reap province, yesterday changed hands from the opposition to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party after several hundred soldiers were trucked there from another province to vote.
The troop movements into the area were confirmed by a lieutenant colonel from the Preah Vihear-based Intervention Brigade 9 in an interview in the commune.
“I came here by military truck. There were about 40 people [on each truck], [and] there were 18 trucks,” said the soldier, who identified himself as “Sovanara”.
The area was among several communes across multiple provinces where the voter lists were swollen by large influxes of nonresident troops, according to interviews conducted yesterday and during the campaign period.
The practice was allowed by the National Election Committee, which permitted soldiers to register and vote in the communes they would be guarding on election day.
This has been criticised as a “loophole” allowing the ruling party to strategically register soldiers to sway the vote in contested communes.
Sovanara said his unit left its base next to the Thai border in Preah Vihear’s Choam Ksan district on Saturday to head to Ta Siem’s Trapaing Thmor village, which is about 70 kilometres northeast of Siem Reap town.
As polls opened at about 7:30am, the officer, who said he had lived and served in Preah Vihear for almost three decades, pointed out that many of the mostly male crowd at the primary-school-turned-polling station were members of his unit.
He said about 800 soldiers from the border had arrived in the commune in recent days and more had been sent to neighbouring communes.
“There are more than 2,000 [stationed at the border] but they’ve got split to Boeung Mealea and other places,” he said, referring to another commune in the district.
Though dressed in civilian clothes, the troops’ presence was confirmed by four other soldiers speaking from the station, who said they had arrived from the border in Preah Vihear but declined to give their names.
Sovanara said the group had come to “protect” the polling station and would return to the border after the vote. He justified the large number of soldiers needed to protect the station by saying “it’s a remote area” and said the trucks used to transport his squad were parked two kilometres away.
The Post later saw four troop carriers nearby. Three were parked behind a villager’s home, and another left carrying about a dozen men travelling out of uniform. Reporters also saw two more troop carriers loaded with men on National Road 64, between Ta Siem commune and Svay Leu district town.
Ta Siem fell to the Sam Rainsy Party at the 2012 commune election by a margin of 62 votes out of more than 1,500.
The commune saw a surge of support for the CPP at the following year’s national ballot, however, when an additional 1,300 voters cast ballots in the commune. Sovanara said his unit also voted in the commune in 2013.
Speaking in the evening, CNRP candidate and former SRP commune chief for Ta Siem Nhoek Rem confirmed that the opposition had lost the vote in the commune, where he said 753 nonresident soldiers had registered.
“They beat us. They are 660 votes ahead,” he said by phone.
“We lost because of soldiers and also because some small parties, which split the vote.”
Soum Rin, the CPP candidate for Ta Siem, was unreachable yesterday evening, though earlier in the day he denied any soldiers had voted in the electorate.
“There are no soldiers here, I only see people dressed in civilian clothes,” he said by phone.
Trapaing Thmor resident Touch Sitha estimated about 300 soldiers had arrived in the village.
“The young soldiers came to sleep at my house,” said Sitha, who lives next to the polling station.
“They have been here three days, including today. They came to vote.”
Sitha and other villagers said they weren’t intimidated by the troops, but he expressed shock that such a large number of soldiers would get to choose their local representatives and then leave.
“The ones who have cars today, they are not from here, I don’t know where they are from,” he said.
At a roadside restaurant a kilometre from the polling station, 44-year-old Nuth Vanna said she was surprised at the amount of men casting ballots in the village this morning, though she added she didn’t know where they were from.
She declined to say which way she was leaning this morning but also said new infrastructure was important.
“I need a new, smooth road to my farm,” Vanna said.
Siem Reap’s CNRP Executive Committee Deputy Chief Sok Kimseng said he had also received reports of large numbers of nonresident soldiers voting in neighbouring Varin district. He condemned the practice, which he called an “evil strategy”.
“It affects the result of the election because the election doesn’t reflect the people’s will,” Kimseng said
“People have lost their chance to choose their own representative, because the soldiers come in from other places and they do not really know what those villagers in those areas want, yet they get to vote to choose representative for them.”
On its website yesterday, rights group Licadho said it had received “several reports” of movements of off-duty soldiers in military vehicles and disproportionate numbers of men voting at several polling stations.
Citing reports from locals and observers, the group wrote that some 380 troops from Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey had voted at two polling stations in Ta Siem, with 18 trucks – carrying around 30 to 40 troops each – seen in the area.
In Boeung Mealea commune, which is in Svay Leu to the south of Ta Siem, locals reported that 10 minibuses arrived in the early morning and dropped off about 300 men who were not from the area, according to Licadho.
In interviews during the campaign period, CNRP candidates in Kandal province’s Roka commune, Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong commune, Preah Vihear’s Srayang commune and Takeo’s O Saray commune also complained of large numbers of nonresident troops registered in their areas.
Yesterday evening, Ek Pha, CNRP commune chief candidate for Roka commune – where interviews last month suggested more than 200 members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit had registered to vote – said the opposition had been defeated three seats to two.
Pha alleged members of the Bodyguard Unit, dressed in civilian clothes, had threatened some villagers and cajoled others with gifts on the eve of the vote.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, several hundred troops from RCAF’s Artillery Unit also returned from their base in Preah Vihear to vote near their unit headquarters in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong commune, according to a soldier from the unit who spoke to The Post during the campaign.
Reached yesterday evening, Hoeurng Som Ngom, CNRP chief candidate in that commune, said he also believed a huge influx of troops had damaged his chances, saying the party was trailing heavily.
In Preah Vihear’s Srayang commune, however, CNRP candidate and former SRP commune chief for the area Pen Lam said he had won four of the seven seats, despite the recall of 300 soldiers based on the border to his commune.
Reached yesterday evening, Minister of Defence Tea Banh denied soldiers had been mobilised as strategic voters.
“They are also human beings, they have the right to vote,” Banh, a member of the CPP’s powerful standing committee, said.
Licadho’s deputy director of advocacy, Naly Pilorge, however, said the evidence suggested a deliberate ploy.
“The evidence we’ve seen so far, of large numbers of soldiers registered in contested constituencies, is tangible confirmation that the ruling party – which has direct links to the RCAF through its central committee – is still engaging in electoral misconduct and interference to maintain its grip on power, threatening to use violence if needed,” she said.