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Cambodia Prepares for Election Campaign - 2003-06-23

In Cambodia, campaigning begins Thursday for national elections that will be held in one month. The Cambodian government says it is working hard for a free and fair vote. But civil rights groups say they are concerned that government restrictions and voter intimidation may mar the elections.

As the month-long campaign begins for Cambodia's national elections, officials are pledging a free and fair process. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen says he will not campaign in order to avoid quarreling with his rivals. Nevertheless, democracy advocates and human rights groups are warning that officials in the government and ruling party are using unfair tactics to maintain the grip they have held on the country for decades.

Koul Panha is the Director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, COMFREL. He says local officials are creating a climate of fear to discourage supporters of the opposition parties. "The first concern is currently the security matter, the increase of cases of intimidation and threats to political activists," he says.

Mr. Koul says there have been 11 killings and 84 cases of intimidation in recent months. Although investigations have shown many of the cases were due to personal disputes, Mr. Koul says the investigations have been hurried and have led voters to believe that it is risky to take an independent stand.

Moreover, the government placed restrictions on public demonstrations and party meetings last February after riots destroyed the Thai embassy and mobs looted Thai businesses. The government blamed opposition groups, but the opposition says security officials stood by and watched, indicating official tolerance of the violence. Earlier this month, security forces brutally repressed a rally by garment factory workers demonstrating for higher wages.

The director of the Cambodia League for Human Rights, LICADO, Kek Galabru, says these episodes of violence, whether politically motivated or not, negatively affect voter confidence. "Are people free to go campaigning, to go voting, to go to support a political party? Are they free or not? And the response is no," he says.

The Cambodia People's Party, which emerged from the Communist Party 12 years ago, maintains tight control over Cambodian politics. With its coalition partner, the royalist FUNCINPEC party, the CPP holds all but a handful of seats in parliament, and those are held by the opposition Sam Rainsy party.

There are nearly two-dozen opposition parties in Cambodia. COMFREL'S Mr. Koul Panha says the parties have not been able to inform voters about their platforms because of a lack of coverage by the news media. "We find that there's this unequal access to the media. [It is] the ruling party only that controls this," he says.

Mr. Koul says the state-owned and private radio and television stations regularly report on the ruling party, but do little to cover the opposition parties. In addition, the association of private broadcasters has decided that its member stations will not accept paid political advertising.

Human rights activist, Kek Galabru, says this means most voters are not well informed. "All the voters have the right to receive all the information from all political parties, the 23 [parties]. But it's not the case," he says. "They receive only all the information from the ruling party and a little bit of information from the others."

Election watchers note that the National Election Commission, whose members were appointed by ministers from the ruling coalition, has not shown complete impartiality.

The situation has led the New York-based Human Rights Watch to issue a reportin mid-June saying that unless changes are implemented immediately, Cambodians will go to the polls with minimal information about their political choices and with fears for their safety. It concludes that these factors will influence how they vote.

Western governments are also expressing concern. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who visited Cambodia last week, is pressing for a free and fair election. "I will urge the government of Cambodia to do everything possible to ensure that the upcoming elections in Cambodia meet international standards, particularly when it comes to equal access to the media," said Mr. Powell.

Secretary Powell noted that the United States has contributed $8 million to the election and indicated a clean vote could bring additional aid.

The European Union and several Asian civic groups are sending hundreds of observers to the election. And 15,000 Cambodian volunteers will monitor the process from each of the 12,000 polling places.

However, observers say the elections will be neither fair nor free if Cambodians are too uninformed to make a choice, or too afraid to show up at the polls.