Criticism of Sar Kheng’s ‘Charity’ Ahead Of Vote

CPP Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has established a charitable foundation with hundreds of thousands of dollars for people in need in Prey Veng province, a move just days before the national election that has been labeled as vote buying by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel).

A notice issued by Mr. Kheng’s Cabinet, dated Saturday but obtained Tuesday, says Mr. Kheng’s “personal foundation” will provide money to the sick, the bereaved and new mothers in Prey Veng province after Sunday’s vote.

The notice, which bears the CPP logo and asks that people vote No. 4—the CPP’s place on ballot papers—says that to receive financial assistance from the foundation, people must make a written submission through their commune or district chief.

The foundation will give a sick per­son between 200,000 and 500,000 riel, or from $50 to $125; a pay­ment of 100,000 riel, or $25, to a woman giving birth; and 200,000 riel, or about $50, to the relatives of the recently deceased to pay for fu­neral costs, according to the letter.

Prey Veng province is home to nearly 1.18 million people and 809,000 registered voters, according to figures from the National Election Committee (NEC).

Cheam Him, president of the CPP in Prey Veng, confirmed that the CPP leader’s cash giveaway was genuine.

“I don’t know whether this can attract voters, but from my understanding it’s a quite generous activity,” Mr. Him said.

Puth Sophat, a member of the foundation whose phone number was given as a contact on the letter, said the fund had $200,000 to donate initially to the needy in the province.

“We now have $200,000, and generous people will help provide us with more,” Mr. Sophat said. “We will check the balance of our spending in the first month to see how much money we’re going to spend after the election.”

Mr. Sophat said the initiative was an act of generosity and the money was donated directly by Mr. Kheng, a long-serving CPP politician.

“This is not a government fund, but it’s a personal fund,” he said.

Coming just days before the country goes to the polls, the move has raised questions over whether Mr. Kheng’s philanthropy constitutes a cash inducement to vote for the ruling CPP.

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that the foundation’s pledge was not vote buying and was simply an election campaign promise, similar to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) promise of a state pension should they win on Sunday.

“This is just a promise and it isn’t an act to buy hearts,” Mr. Nytha said. “Other political parties can do the same thing.”

The Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly states that anyone found to be “buying votes by offering material or monetary incentives” must be removed from the voter list, have their candidacy canceled and be fined from between 5 million and 25 million riel, or between $1,250 and $6,250.

The CNRP was formed last year in a merger between the SRP and the Human Rights Party—both of which made gains during commune elections last year in Prey Veng, formerly a CPP stronghold.

Prey Veng will elect 11 lawmakers to the National Assembly, and has been the target of a comprehensive campaign by high-level CPP figures who appear to fear losing more ground to the opposition.

Yem Ponhearith, a CNRP candidate in Prey Veng, said he was not concerned by Mr. Kheng’s foundation.

“I think they are afraid of losing more votes here,” Mr. Pon­hearith said.

“The people living in Prey Veng are giving us strong support and joining us actively. Their minds are stronger than the power of offering money, sarongs and food seasoning,” he said.

The CNRP is running on a nationwide platform that includes measures intended to provide an improved social safety net, including increased spending from the national budget on health care and a $10 per month old-age pension.

Comfrel executive director Koul Panha said a fully independent NEC would consider the foundation’s pledge vote buying.

“I think under international principles it is vote buying, but under our law and with the NEC’s interpretation, it wont be,” he said.

Mr. Panha said that Comfrel had repeatedly asked the NEC to provide more clarity on what constitutes vote buying.

“Gift giving by politicians, and promising to give money, should be considered vote buying,” he said.

Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said it was clear the foundation was intended to help the CPP win votes in a troublesome province on election day.

“The motivation for doing this now is to make sure the CPP wins this province,” he said, adding that he thought it was a strange tactic since CPP supporters outside of Prey Veng would be asking “what about us?”

“We know that if they want to mobilize funding for such foundations, there are lots of rich people affiliated with the CPP to put money into it,” Mr. Kol said.

“The money, where it comes from, whether it is dirty money or clean money, we don’t know,” he added.

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