July 16, 2013
A royal pardon allowing exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy to
return home has taken some of the heat off Cambodia's Prime Minister
Hun Sen but the respite may be shortlived as the international community
narrows its focus on upcoming general elections that many expect to be
tainted with irregularities.
The wily Hun Sen advised King
Norodom Sihamoni last Friday to pardon Sam Rainsy in an apparent attempt
to placate international critics who have accused the premier of
wanting to exclude the opposition politician from the July 28 vote.
while Sam Rainsy's a 11-year jail sentence for politicized offences has
been scrapped and he is allowed to return to his country a free man,
the 64-year-old charismatic leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party
(CNRP) will not be able to contest in the elections.
groups are concerned that Hun Sen's administration and his ruling
Cambodian People's Party (CPP) will continue to use the courts and other
tools to intimidate Sam Rainsy and other opponents in the elections.
There is already a slew of cases brought against CNRP's deputy chief Kem Sokha, including a criminal complaint for defamation.
one should be fooled that the return of Sam Rainsy means that the
Cambodian elections will be free and fair," said Phil Robertson, the
deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
There are "major problems" in the electoral system that could deny Cambodians a credible vote in two weeks time, he said.
cited issues over voter registration lists, the lack of independence of
the National Election Committee, which manages the country's elections,
the use of civil servants and army personnel to campaign for the CPP,
government control of mass media to slant the news, and intimidation
against opposition figures and civil society monitors.
Sam Rainsy has been disqualified to run for a parliamentary seat
despite his pardon, the opposition will be hugely motivated by his
return, Robertson said.
"And now we’re worried about what the CPP
may try to do in the final days of the campaign to repress that
exuberance and activism," he said. "So the risks of violence are real."
CPP, whose central committee comprises all of Cambodia's top military
commanders, has openly said that if the party loses the election, there
will be civil war, suggesting possible CPP-instigated violence against
the opposition and its supporters.
Some groups are not even
certain Sam Rainsy—who says he'll fly back to Cambodia on July 19 from
his temporary base in France—will be allowed to campaign freely for his
party on his return home, said T. Kumar, the Washington-based
international advocacy director at Amnesty International.
Minister Hun Sen should guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of
movement for Sam Rainsy when he is there," Kumar said. "There is also
the question of the plight of Sam Rainsy after the election and whether
he will be harrassed."
Ahead of his return, Sam Rainsy has
himself stressed the need for "free and fair" elections, saying it is an
essential element of any democracy worthy of the name.
mere fact of my return does not create a free and fair election for
Cambodia, as promised in the Paris Peace Agreements, and does not
advance NEC [National Election Committee] reform," he said.
Rainsy was referring to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements signed by the
United States and 17 other nations that laid out the process for ending
decades of conflict in Cambodia and building a democratic society
anchored in human rights and the rule of law.
upcoming fifth elections since the Paris Accords are likely to be the
least fair in the 20 years since the United Nations organized the
historic 1993 poll, according to the Committee for Free and Fair
Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel).
The number of National Assembly
(parliament) seats won by the CPP has consistently risen with each
election although voter turnout and voter registration numbers have been
An independent audit of 4,900 voters conducted this
year found that 10.4 percent of registered voters simply did not exist,
and that at least nine percent of past voters were unfairly removed from
voting lists, according to a study by the U.S.-based National
Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for
Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec).
The NEC said that
9.6 million people have registered to vote for a 123-seat parliament,
more than half of them between the ages of 18 and 35.
Secretary General Tep Nytha gave an assurance that the elections would
be in line with "democratic principles," referring to a statement issued
by King Norodom Sihamoni assuring the public that they would not be
intimidated by either individuals or political parties ahead of the
“The King’s royal message assures the voters to vote without fear. This is a meaningful message,” he said in a recent statement.
groups believe that Hun Sen, the longest serving leader of any
Southeast Asian country, could gain an advantage in the elections for
his decision paving the way for a royal pardon for his arch-rival.
see this as a win-win deal," said Preap Kol, executive director of
Transparency International Cambodia, which is to deploy more than 800
observers to about 400 polling stations across the country on voting day
to gauge the quality of the elections.
Sen, 60, will benefit because Sam Rainsy's return "helps ease political
tensions" and is seen part of a "political compromise and
reconciliation"—factors that may boost the vote's "legitimacy," Preap
Sam Rainsy, on the other hand, will be able to enhance
his party's chances in the elections by particularly attracting the
young and "undecided voters," Preap Kol said.
"The fact that Sam
Rainsy can return to the Cambodian political era gives a lot of hopes
and aspirations to the voters, especially the 'young' who comprise 36.5
percent of the registered voters," he said.
With about two weeks
before the polls, the U.S. State Department reminded the Hun Sen's
government of the need to adopt recommendations by the UN Special
Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, aimed at free and
Subedi had said that most of the proposals aimed
at reforming Cambodia's electoral process based on shortcomings
identified in previous elections "remain unimplemented" by the
Last week, a number of U.S. lawmakers said that aid to Cambodia should be cut unless the polls were free and fair.
European Union, which in 2008 sent hundreds of observers to monitor the
elections, has declined to participate in this year’s polls.
transparent and credible election is a major opportunity to consolidate
democracy and secure Cambodia's future development," the E.U. said in a