In The News

In Cambodia: Elections & Violence

July 16, 2008

A few weeks ago, trucks carrying loudspeakers and loads of cheerful party supporters sporting colorful t-shirts invaded the normally peaceful streets of Phnom Penh. Small white posters displaying the images of party leaders started to cover walls throughout the capital city. There is no doubt about it; the election season has started.

In a country still on the learning curve of democracy, this event is indeed significant.

Music in the streets, often played as early as 5 a.m., and shouted slogans mixed with the discordant sounds of loud speakers should not conceal the reality of a “relatively” quiet campaign season. Up until now, the 4th mandate for National Assembly elections in Cambodia has been less violent than the previous one: while the 2003 elections were overshadowed by intimidation and violence, the 2008 campaign season has been generally qualified by observers, politicians, and the Cambodian National Election Committee as, for the most part, peaceful. Whether this relative tranquility is a sign of democratic maturity or of a lack of enthusiasm for an election that many believe is a foregone conclusion has yet to be determined.

This is not to suggest that all is perfect. One need only review the local media for frequent reports of incidents and irregularities. The Conflict Prevention in Cambodian Elections (COPCEL) project of the Cambodian Development Research Institute provides a daily list of election-related issues as reported in the local newspapers, TV, and radio. Reported incidents range from forced removal of party signs to outright intimidation and, in extreme cases, death threats. Incidents such as complaints of alleged vote-buying, bias, threats and violence, have also been reported.

More disturbing yet are the cases reported in the newspapers of Monday, July 14th. One official of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is reported to have been a victim of an acid attack, not an uncommon way to treat your enemies in Cambodia, and an opposition SRP-affiliated journalist was killed last Friday in a drive-by-shooting on Phnom-Penh’s busy Monireth Boulevard at about 7:00 p.m. Although the direct link these cases may have with the election are still under investigation, observers are worried that these may be signs of an unwelcome escalation of violence in what had been considered up to now as a quiet election campaign.

Although these reports are shocking and the methods unacceptable, the current situation is nevertheless a marked improvement from the characteristic suppression and violence of past elections. As of early July, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) reported 16 cases of obstruction of political activities, intimidation, and threats against politicians and prominent political activists. In comparison, 26 incidents were reported for the same period of the 2003 elections, in which eight murders had plunged the country into mourning during the campaign season. The very existence of systematic monitoring of such election-related abuses is reassuring.

Taken alone, the decrease in violence is not a guarantee of free and fair elections; such “improvements” in many countries in the process of democratization often result from strict political control. In Cambodia’s case, what is noticeable are the recognized efforts of different stakeholders such as political parties, public officials, and civil society to monitor and denounce irregularities and to collaborate to ensure a non-violent election season. Noticeable measures have been taken by government authorities, as demonstrated by the case reported in the July 9th edition of Cambodia Daily, in which a party official was fined $1,250 for giving $150 to 20 families in exchange for votes in a rural district. Moreover, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol at bars and restaurants during the weekend of national elections is a clear attempt to eliminate potential factors of violent activity. Let’s hope that these efforts will intensify in an attempt to control the escalating violence and ensure a peaceful campaign for free and fair elections in Cambodia.

Veronique Salze-Lozach is the Regional Director for Economic Programs at The Asia Foundation’s office in Phnom Penh.

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