Rong Chhun stepped down from his role as a member of the National Election Committee last month.
He did so because he was appointed to the position by the opposition CNRP. When the party was dissolved by the Supreme Court, he no longer felt able to serve the committee, and said it would mean betraying his conscience.
The NEC was revamped with nine senior leaders in April 2015 under a political agreement between the ruling CPP and the CNRP following protests after the 2013 national election.
The composition of the committee included four elected officials from the CPP, four from the CNRP and one from a civil society organisation.
Mr Chhun is still proud of the work done at the NEC since its reorganisation. He said it had improved the commune election process, which was recognised by political parties that participated in the polls, as well as national and international observers.
Mr Chhun took up his post at the NEC on April 13, 2015.
The former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, Mr Chhun said he decided to join the NEC on behalf of the opposition to help reform the organisation.
He said the NEC had a bad reputation in the past, related to problems with poll results and incidences of “ghost” names on electoral registers.
“The new NEC organised a better voter registration list to ensure elections would be accepted by all political parties, and national and international observers,” Mr Chhun said. “From my work there, I admired that the organisation was good despite little technical mistakes.”
Working at the NEC was a big departure from his previous role advocating for teachers for about 20 years. But Mr Chhun relished the challenge, saying he was passionate about social justice and wanted to protect the will of the people and the nation.
The fact that political parties accepted the results of June’s commune polls, plus praise offered by local and international electoral watchdogs, was testament to the good work of the NEC, Mr Chhun said.
“We were also preparing for the Senate elections due to be held on January 15 and discussing how to better the election process next year,” he said. “We regret that the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP.”
The court sounded the death knell for the CNRP on November 16.
Mr Chhun remembered the words he said to national and international journalists at the time of his appointment, promising that if the NEC were not independent, he would resign from his position without regretting the loss of salary and perks of the job.
“I promised in the past to resign from the position, so I resigned as I said,” Mr Chhun explained.
“I could not go against the will of the people and watch the CNRP’s seats distributed to other parties that the people did not support. I do not want history to remember that I contributed to going against the will of the people.”
Mr Chhun’s resignation attracted criticism from some of his friends who said he should continue to work at the NEC and serve the nation.
They said he had the opportunity to continue making positive changes at the committee.
But Mr Chhun said he could not be part of what the NEC was being asked to do, since it was charged with redistributing the CNRP’s seats amongst other parties.
“The new law required us to divide the seats, but I could not implement such a law,” he said. “That law was not approved by god, it was approved by a group of people. Sometimes the law is wrong.
“That law allows for the division of seats to other parties. Half of the country’s people could have blamed me for going against their votes and giving their seats to parties that they did not support,” he claimed.
Two other members of the NEC, also nominated by the CNRP, submitted their resignations at the same time as Mr Chhun.
Vice-chairman Kouy Bunroeun and Te Manirong stepped down, but a fourth member from the opposition, Hing Thirith, remains in place.
Mr Chhun warned that the 44 replacement lawmakers drafted to fill old CNRP seats in the National Assembly were unlikely to challenge the government. The new parliamentarians are from the royalist party Funcinpec, the Cambodian Nationality Party and the Khmer Economic Development Party.
“They will just coordinate with the ruling party,” he said. “I do not dare to say what will happen when the election comes.”
Despite the current situation, Mr Chhun still intends to urge the government to release former CNRP president Kem Sokha from prison and allow him to compete in next year’s general election to show Cambodia is democratic and politically transparent.
He has not yet made a decision about whether he will turn to social work, advocacy or human rights next, or perhaps get further involved with politics. He is worried about how to choose his path, given current political tensions.
As a human rights activist and protest leader prior to working at the NEC, Mr Chhun received many threats.
He was also arrested by police on October 15, 2005 and detained for 96 days after he issued a statement expressing concerns about border issues.
The threats did not deter him, but encouraged him to intensify his advocacy work and dare to speak out against the government.
He said that freedom, respect for human rights and democracy do not come automatically, but require people to work hard.
With effort, things change, but without advocacy, human rights violations and social injustice will continue to exist, he added.
“I think that if we all stop being afraid, then the people that hurt us will become afraid of us instead. If each of us is scared, they will hurt us even more,” he said.
Mr Chhun looks back fondly on his two years at the NEC, saying the experience was valuable.
He still believes that if Cambodia holds free and fair elections, open to all political parties, then the country will grow in respect to human rights and confidence from foreign investors.