Sept 11, 2011
Cambodian democracy activist Koul Panha knows his country is still a long way from having a credible electoral process. But having witnessed the horrors of what can happen in the absence of a functioning democracy _ his father and relatives were murdered by the Khmer Rouge when he was eight years old _ he is passionate about working towards that goal.
AGAINST THE ODDS: Koul Panha heads the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
Koul Panha was named late last month as one of six recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Dubbed ''Asia's Nobel Prize'', the award was established in 1957 in memory of the former Philippine president and recognises exemplary public service within democratic societies in Asia. Koul Panha is the third Cambodian to receive the award.
He was in Bangkok recently to celebrate receiving the award at a function hosted by his colleagues in the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel).
The executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), an organisation that aims to promote fairness and transparency in Cambodian elections and educate voters, says a belief in the importance of equality drives him in his work.
''It's in our religion, it's in our culture that individuals have equal rights and freedoms. It's not just a Western value, but a universal principle that we also cherish human dignity,'' said Koul Panha.
The Ramon Magsaysay foundation said it recognised Koul Panha ''for his determined and courageous leadership of the sustained campaign to build an enlightened, organised and vigilant citizenry who will ensure fair and free elections _ as well as demand accountable governance by their elected officials _ in Cambodia's nascent democracy''.
Koul Panha, 44, has been an advocate for democratic transparency since Cambodia embarked on its first free elections in 1993. He was then a leading member of the Task Force on Cambodian elections, which became Comfrel in 1997.
Koul Panha says the childhood trauma he went through at the hands of the Khmer Rouge spurred him on in his pursuits as did the example set by Thun Saray, a former political prisoner of the regime.
He said Thun Saray inspired him to join other young energetic Cambodians to ''help educate the public against the notion that human rights activists usually defend bandits or criminals''.
Koul Panha and his family fled Phnom Penh for Kampong Thom province as the Khmer Rouge regime tightened its grip on the country. Later they returned to the capital, where Koul Panha received a degree in chemical engineering at Cambodia's Institute of Technology. He became a lecturer there prior to embarking on his career as a democracy advocate.
Since its formation, Comfrel has mobilised about 50,000 volunteers to raise awareness among voters about their rights and duties. Some 150,000 voters have taken part in the group's programmes.
He said the organisation holds workshops in the country encouraging people to monitor their elected officials' performance.
Human Rights Watch issued a report shortly before Cambodia's most recent elections in July, 2008 in which it outlined some of the obstacles to a free and fair vote.
''The near-monopoly on broadcast media for the ruling Cambodian People's Party's, bias within the electoral apparatus, and harassment, intimidation, and coerced defections of opposition party members undermines the credibility of the national elections,'' the report stated.
Koul Panha knows well the problems his country is facing, but is optimistic, saying that the threat of political violence has decreased.
Still he is under no illusions that the system is anything but deeply flawed. ''It is important that state resources are allotted fairly for all candidates to create a level playing field and it's also imperative to eliminate or reduce factors that frighten or traumatise voters into not exercising their rights,'' he said.
Next year will see a major test for Koul Panha and Camfrel when elections are held in 1,621 communes nationwide.
Koul Panha added that Asean's goal of establishing a community by 2015 should also promote democratic principles, not just economic benefit.
He said Cambodian and Asean leadership will be forced to recognise the voice of the people, as has been the case in the Middle East this year.
''Our democracy is unfulfilled; the power has yet to be transferred to the people. But I sense that the recent Middle East uprisings will inevitably be a catalyst for a change in the region,'' he said.