"The ruling party controls almost all the media"

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Campaigning before the elections. The election poster shows prime minister Hun Sen, who has been ruling the country for nearly 30 years.
Photo: Heinrich Böll Foundation Cambodia
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Madame Kek, you come from a respected family, a family of service to the country. You yourself brokered talks between Hun Sen, at that time already the strong man in Phnom Penh, and Prince Sihanouk, then from the opposition. What was your impression of the young Hun Sen?

When I met him for the first time in 1987, I saw a very shy, young man. When he talked to me, it seemed as if he would like to do something for his country. He told me that he came from a very poor family, so he understood what poverty is and what poor people needed. His wish was to help the Cambodian people develop the country, which had just emerged from the grips of the Khmer Rouge. At that time I believed in him, and I think a lot of people believed in him as well. Many thought that if we had a leader from a poor family, he would understand what it is like to be hungry. 

These talks led to the Peace Agreement in 1991 and then came the UN. They organised and supervised the elections. Hun Sen, surprisingly, did not win the elections. But he still did not give up power. Would you say that he stole the elections?

For me, the 1993 election is the only one that we can consider credible, meaning it was free and fair despite a lot of violence. Why? Because the election was organised by the UN and since the UN was neutral and impartial, I think the result was quite good. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost the election, but did not accept the result.

Unfortunately, in the name of reconciliation, none of the parties took on the role of the opposition. The three parties that had the seats in the national assembly made a coalition government. It was not a good idea, it should have been maybe two out of the … there were in fact four parties. One, the Molinaka Party, had only one seat.

So for us, civil society, we wish to see, maybe, two political parties set up a government and one in the opposition, because an opposition is important to keep checks and balances on the government.

But you have had regular elections ever since. Would you say that this is just a façade of a democracy?

If you look at democratic elections, a real democratic election, the institution that organises the election is independent. If it is not independent how can you trust that election? In Cambodia, in 1993 it was the UN. Since 1998, the institution that organises elections is dominated by the ruling party. It is difficult for the Cambodian people to say that the election is impartial, neutral and credible. Elections are not only for political parties, they are for everybody. All the people who have the right to vote should accept the result. If they don’t accept it, it is not credible.

If you travel your country, you notice the signboards of the CPP on the streets. They seem to be everywhere while the other parties only have a few offices here and there. Is the CPP really in control of the whole population?

They have the right to put signs everywhere, but we have had reports of signs from the opposition being pulled down. There is a big gap between the ruling party and other parties. The ruling party controls almost all the media. All the television channels and most of the radio stations are affiliated with the ruling party. Very few newspapers belong to the opposition or are neutral. There are, however, two English newspapers that are quite independent.

The list of candidates has been published for the elections set for the end of July. One of Hun Sen’s sons and his son-in-law are on the list. Do you have a feeling that he wants to establish some kind of family business there?

Some people think that, but I heard the prime minister deny these allegations. He said, “No, don’t speak about nepotism. I would like only to promote the young generation.” That is what he said. There are also other sons of the elite on the list as well. 

Let’s talk about the voter list. Recently an international NGO from the United States, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), in collaboration with a local NGO, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Nicfec), audited the voter list. They found that more than nine percent of the names on the list do not exist. And also about nine per cent of the people who had registered to vote were not on the list, their names had been erased. That is a lot, almost 20 per cent of the voter list. Some of the people’s birthdates did not match with the birthdates on the electoral list, so these people might not be allowed to vote on the day of the election. It is this kind of irregularity that will have a big impact on the election results.

But if there are such irregularities where can you complain? Can you go to a court? What do you with this information?

For us, civil society, we can only be observers. We cannot monitor, which means we cannot file a complaint. Only representatives of the political parties have a monitoring status, which means that they can first file a complaint with the National Election Committee (NEC). Then they can complain to the court, and the Constitutional Council is the institute of last resort.

But if I remember correctly, complaints were filed during previous elections, to no avail because the majority of the NEC members belong to the ruling party. Only one or two members, sometimes, belong to the opposition. There is no balance. We, civil society, have always requested that the NEC change their composition. Maybe not of the NEC on the national level, but we would like to change the composition of the Provincial Election Committee (PEC), the Commune Election Committee (CEC) and of the officials that work at the polling station. But the NEC did not take our recommendations into account.

But as observers, are you able to move freely and to raise complaints and to advise people? Or is it difficult or even dangerous to be an observer?

We have to apply to the NEC to be observers, and in the last elections, we applied a little bit late, so the NEC did not give us permission. But we could stay outside of the polling stations. The problem of being an observer on the day of the election is that there is not much to observe inside the polling station. It is outside that we can see how many people had their names erased. We can go to the polling stations, but if we cannot complain, if we cannot change the situation, it is useless. We have always made many recommendations during elections, but we can see that our recommendations were not taken into consideration.

Foreign observers, like the EU, used to send long-term observers and short-term observer on the day of the elections. They made a lot of recommendations but if you look at the recommendations, they were not implemented. So it is very difficult to make the statement and to say that the election will be free and fair.

The 1993 election - it was free and fair. Virtually almost all people were registered. And we had a voter card. The UN even sent mobile teams to register and provide voter cards to people living in remote areas and in prisons. The day of election was postponed, sometimes for several months, so that people could register to vote. And also on Election Day, they had mobile teams to allow people in prison and in remote areas to vote. The UN also controlled five ministries, including the Ministry of Information, so the election information announced in the press, on the radio and on television was uniform. It was a much more free and fair election.

Given that background and involvement of the international community: Are you disappointed that the EU says it will not send election observers this time?

When I heard that, yes, I was a bit disappointed. But when the UN explained why, I understood the situation. The UN said that they were not sending observers because the Cambodian authorities did not take their recommendations from previous observer missions into consideration. Why should they go back and make the same recommendations again? I understand and accept the explanation. 

The interview was conducted by Renate Wilke-Launer at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in June 2013


Video (eng)

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Cambodia: Stolen land, stolen elections?

The 2013 elections in Cambodia are hardly expected to be free and fair. In this dossier, we examine what this means for the future of the country. Through analyses, interviews, films and studies, we pursue a critical discussion about Cambodia’s development, and give a say to Cambodian and German representatives of civil society and politics.