Cambodia’s opposition party leader told his supporterson Monday that upcoming commune elections will be better than the last ones thanks to a revamped National Election Committee that includes members from both the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
During the speech in Tram Kak district of southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province the day before, a video of which posted online, CNRP President Kem Sokha conveyed his optimism that the country’s commune elections on June 4 will be better because the National Election Committee, the country’s electoral body, now includes four CNRP members, four CPP members, and one member from civil society.
“Concerns regarding missing names of voters on voters’ lists have been addressed,” he said.
“A lot of improvements have been seen in voter registration thanks to the assistance provided to the NEC by Japan and the European community to register voters through electronic means,” he said. “The number of voters has increased significantly.”
The surprisingly upbeat speech came despite recent CNRP concerns about voter rolls and the ongoing jailing of NEC deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya and opposition activists.
Kem Sokha only took over the reins of the CNRP in February after what effectively was the forced resignation of Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile in France since late 2015 and has had numerous defamation lawsuits filed against him, with many still pending trial.
Kem Sokha said there were good signs that voters’ lists are now secure, and that observers from the international community and local nongovernmental organizations will monitor the elections.
The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed.
Domestic monitors, however, detected scores of cases of irregularities during the election campaign, including intimidation, vote buying, and the destruction of parties’ leaflets and logos.
The opposition party went on to win nearly half the vote in a general election the following year.
This time around the CNRP is one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats on the June 4 ballot that many see as a bellwether for general elections in 2018.
Observers believe that the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June elections.
Party congress on Tuesday
Kem Sokha’s comments come just as the CNRP is about to hold a party congress on Tuesday, though municipal officials in the capital Phnom Penh have limited the number of participants to 1,000 people.
The city’s deputy governor Khuong Sreng sent a letter on Monday to the CNRP cautioning it not to cause traffic obstructions at the party’s headquarters while holding the congress.
He also urged the party to educate its supporters not to use the congress to provoke violence.
At the congress, the CNRP will amend a crucial bylaw that allows the selection of three vice presidents in a bid to placate the country’s Ministry of Interior, which rejected the party's previous method of naming party leaders.
The clash between the CNRP and ministry over the CNRP’s leadership selection process began in March after former party president Sam Rainsy resigned.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday warned Cambodians again of war and other negative consequences if they do not vote for candidates from the CPP.
He told CPP supporters in the presence of visiting Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, that there are those in Cambodia who want peace and those who want conflict with neighboring countries, so it is now up to the people to decide.
“The floor is yours!” he said. “Actually there are people who want peace and continued development. At the same time, there are people who want conflicts and rivalries in relations with neighboring countries."
Hun Sen’s comments were an indirect reference to past allegations by the CNRP that maps being used by the CPP government in border negotiations with Vietnam were fake or inaccurate.
The country’s border disputes arose from unclear frontier demarcations left by former French colonial administrators after Cambodia gained independence in 1953. Disagreements over the demarcations have prompted armed clashes between Cambodia and its neighbors, including Vietnam.
During his speech, Hun Sen also spoke in Vietnamese for more than two minutes after he said he felt that the interpreter was not doing an adequate job of translating his speech into Vietnamese.
He asked Cambodians not to condemn him or treat him as a Vietnamese puppet.
“When I spoke Vietnamese, I was considered a puppet of Vietnam,” he said. “However, I have never been called a puppet of France and England when I have spoken some French or English.”
In defense of the CNRP
In response to Hun Sen’s words, CNRP Senior Lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang said his party has made genuine peace and development a priority.
“We have reiterated time and again that when the CNRP wins the elections, all Cambodians are winners,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “The CNRP won’t treat any Cambodian as an enemy. We are one Khmer people. Our foreign policies with neighboring countries will focus on good relations and mutual interests.”
Political commentator Meas Ny said he is not convinced that any individuals or groups in the country want to engage in conflicts with neighboring nations, and that some border issues with Vietnam have stemmed from people’s concerns about irregularities.
“Cambodians are still divided with regard to border issues with Vietnam,” he told RFA. “It’s not a conflict between the two countries, but rather a conflict among Cambodians over Cambodia-Vietnam border issues.”
“It’s good to develop areas near the borders and improve cross-border commercial activities,” he said. “However, it is meaningless if a neighboring country does not respect our sovereignty.”
Reported by Sothearin Yeang, Vanndeth Van, and Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.