PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Human Rights Watch and several Cambodian NGOs are blasting efforts to cut their influence in politics. They warn that democracy will be the loser.
From New York, Human Rights Watch spoke out against a package of proposed election laws that are to set the rules for commune elections in 2017 and parliamentary elections in 2018.
The National Assembly debate starts Thursday.
Criminalizing insults, penalizing parties for individual members’ misconduct, and a ban on post-election political boycotts add up to the government constricting free speech, the group said.
“Laws like these limiting freedom of expression, association, and assembly will make it likely that any future Cambodian election is undemocratic,” Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW, warned in a statement.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan rejected these comments and said NGOs have not played a positive role in Cambodian politics. He charged they have caused problems in past elections by interfering with voters and government institutions.
He also said that NGOs don’t respect national elections by attempting to sack elected officials, including the Prime Minister.
“They don’t respect the rule of law or the will of the Cambodian people,” he told Khmer Times.
He singled out the Electoral Integrity Project, a University of Sydney and Harvard University program funded by the Australian Research Council. He said they produce an “impressive forest” of misinformation which does not match Cambodia’s political reality.
He also said that HRW relies on propagating opinions of outsiders, rather than the actual desires of Cambodian citizens to influence elections. Such NGOs serve foreigners, not Cambodians, according to Mr. Phay.
Adhoc director Thun Saray countered that NGOs and similar groups exist to make sure elections are free and fair. He said that by penalizing watchdogs for “saying the wrong thing,” the government will gain the power to nullify voices of people it dislikes.
“They can use their power to not recognize the results of an election,” Mr. Saray said in an interview.
NGOs also slammed the potential ban on political boycotts, the shortening of campaign periods, and the potential exclusion of people with dual citizenship from politics.
They were not happy with proposed new rules governing the National Election Commission. They said the NEC would cease to be independent and would become a body the government could control through administrative means.
“The NEC will not be able to function free from political interferences,” Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said.
“All eight members are political appointees from the two parties, while the ninth member is to be chosen with agreement from both parties,” he said. “Independent? No way.”
Mr. Kol said there may not yet be a clear understanding that freedom of expression is a “vital” part of a liberal democracy. He speculated that the parties may be choosing to limit freedom of expression for their own benefits. Human Rights Watch added that the draft law allows the government to use sub-decrees to go around National Election Commission.
Mr. Saray also warned that the proposed new laws will further politicize the military and will encourage Cambodian security forces to intimidate demonstrators.