srolop commune, Kompong Cham province – This rural commune, some 40-km from Kompong Cham town, has become a symbol—according to some observers—of all that was wrong with this year’s commune elections.
Gangs were reported by Human Rights Watch and the UN to have intimidated and threatened Funcinpec commune candidates in the months before the election; Pol Eang, the CPP commune chief who has been in power since 1979, was re-elected in February.
And his son, police officer Eang Veth, is accused of getting away with murder.
Eang Veth was acquitted in May of killing a Funcinpec commune candidate and Sam Rainsy Party activist, despite eyewitness accounts that he was the man who pulled the trigger.
So far, only one man in Kompong Cham has been convicted in connection with any election-related violence, despite the province’s record number of political killings and violent incidents before the Feb 3 commune council elections.
“The unpunished electoral violence does not bode well for the next elections,” said Sara Colm, a representative for Human Rights Watch Asia in Cambodia. “These cases send a message that electoral violence is tolerated.”
At least 17 political activists or candidates from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party were killed in the lead-up to the commune elections. The government still denies that any of these incidents were politically motivated.
This is the election history the donors have been faced with during this week’s Consultative Group meeting, which ends today with donors announcing next year’s pledges. The government is asking for $1.4 billion in aid over the next three years.
While many donors have praised the commune elections for the decrease in violence compared to the 1993 and 1998 national elections, Human Rights Watch has called on donors to take stronger steps to push the government to ensure much more safety during the national elections, scheduled for July 2003.
“Given the human rights violations committed in relation to the polling, when Cambodia’s Consultative Group of international donors meets in Phnom Penh …they should insist on a minimum set of reforms and conditions for the electoral process,” states Human Rights Watch in a May 1 release.
“Donors should not support the electoral process by providing aid or technical assistance for the national elections until the Royal Government of Cambodia takes concrete steps to reform the National Election Committee, ensure the safety of candidates and voters, end impunity for perpetrators of political violence, and takes steps to ensure that the voting cannot be manipulated,” the rights group stated.
But placing conditions on electoral aid is not a popular stance. One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US would definitely “make mention” at the CG meeting of the violence and intimidation during the commune elections, but stopped short of saying the US would make election-related aid conditional on key reforms.
“Overall, the level of violence, and post-election violence was lower than in previous years, but, of course, the investigations into the violence and the violence itself during the 2002 elections left a lot to be desired,” the official said.
Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot also disagreed that conditions and reform benchmarks should be placed on the government for election funds.
“Conditionality is one of the most difficult issues with the CG meetings because donor countries are here to help with the development of the country and to work together with the Cambodian government,” Mailhot said.
“Placing conditions on aid could create an adversarial approach to development, and gets into issues such as national sovereignty.”
But while UN special human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht voiced his concerns that conditionality would not be the best policy, he added that the donors do deserve returns on their investments here.
“I don’t like conditions placed on aid—the conditions can be used too arbitrarily,” said Leuprecht during his visit to Cambodia earlier this month. “However, if a country like Cambodia accepts or needs donor aid, they have to know that the donors will expect results on the government’s commitments.”
The two people in Srolop commune who perhaps best represent this locality’s failings—and those of the 2002 elections as a whole regarding election violence—are commune Chief Pol Eang and Soy Tha, the widow of slain Funcinpec commune candidate Thon Phally.
Pol Eang, a CPP lifer in his 60s who has served as commune chief for 23 years, personifies what some call the commune election’s failures.
Although officials from the NEC and the Ministry of Interior’s Election Department could not provide exact figures, they estimate that Pol Eang is one of many incumbent commune chiefs who remained in his seat following February’s elections, continuing the same administration that many blame on the commune’s shortcomings.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes before 1979,” Pol Eang said two weeks ago from his house in Srolop commune. “During the Pol Pot times, we had nothing. After 1979, we had only our bare hands in this commune. We had no fields to farm, no education, no health care and no roads. Now we have some health centers, roads and at least one big market.”
But according to some, the commune still has not changed.
“We tried our best during the campaign to push [Pol Eang] out, but the people still voted him back in,” said Bun Bien, the newly elected Funcinpec commune councilor for Srolop commune.
Currently, there are six CPP commune councilors in Srolop, with three Funcinpec and two Sam Rainsy Party members rounding out the council. “It is up to the people who they want,” Bun Bien said.
Kompong Cham province—and especially Srolop commune —was heavily criticized by human rights groups for the violence and intimidation voters and commune candidates faced in the months before the election.
According to commune election reports from the UN and Human Rights Watch, Kompong Cham province experienced the most pre-election “problems” of any province in Cambodia.
Both organizations reported that a gang of militia members or police roamed through Tbong Khmum district intimidating Funcinpec commune candidates and villagers.
In Ancheum commune, the family of an opposition supporter was allegedly attacked; the women were beaten and the men targeted for assassination. In other parts of the district, the gang allegedly killed or robbed villagers, Human Rights Watch and the UN said.
“The line between political and non-political criminality was blurred in [the 2002 commune elections] to the point where even accidental deaths caused alarm among the electorate,” states the UN report. “That organized criminality and politics should have been allowed to overlap to this extent is a matter for very serious concern.”
Two of the most high-profile cases of election-related violence in Kompong Cham are the killings of Thon Phally and Sam Rainsy Party activist Phuong Sophat.
Both men allegedly were killed by the same gang of police and military members in Srolop commune about one hour apart. Although three men were found guilty by the Kompong Cham provincial court in the killings, two of those men were tried in absentia and are still at large.
The biggest cause for concern was the acquittal and release of Eang Veth and Leng Sarin—two Tbong Khmum district policemen who are currently up for promotions.
This is where Soy Tha, the widow of the slain Funcinpec commune candidate, comes into the picture.
She positively identified Eang Veth—the son of commune Chief Pol Eang—as her husband’s killer during the trial. During subsequent interviews in Srolop commune she reaffirmed that eyewitness account. She has filed an appeal with the appeals court in Phnom Penh and has called for justice to be served in the death of her husband.
For her, the commune election represents not only a failing of democracy but the death of her husband.
“What’s the point of going through these election exercises if, at the end of the day, the election violence and intimidation continues and is not punished?” Colm asked. “The donor community needs to demand real results.”