Discriminatory Election Laws Criticized

Current commune election laws requiring candidates to be literate unfairly discriminate against women, who traditionally have little schooling and are less likely to be able to read or write, attendees at a conference on women in politics said Friday.

Conference goers suggested lobbying female government officials and lawmakers to allow female election candidates to be exempt from the literacy mandate.

Cambodia is using next year’s commune elections as a way to catapult women into this country’s historically male-dominated political arena. The government has made it a point to see that nearly a third of all election candidates are wo­men, and this initiative has been met enthusiastically by members of all three leading political parties.

But conference attendees said their political intentions have resulted in threats and jibes from their male counterparts.

“I was told that however hard women worked, they could not work better than men,” said Khen Phalla, who traveled from Siem Reap province to Phnom Penh for the conference.

Commune candidate trainer Hoy Sochivanny said that while there are many women qualified for commune leadership, intimidation from existing commune leaders has stopped many of them from seeking office.

Leadership in Cambodia’s 1,621 communes has been largely static since the Vietnamese installed commune chiefs after toppling the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Election observers say the threat of losing their long-time grip on power has many chiefs trying to rig the ballot, or resisting it entirely.

“In Cambodian politics the winner takes control of everything and the loser ends up in jail or exile,” said Funcinpec lawmaker Khem Chamroeun. “Politics is not a competition to see who’s better, it’s a life or death fight.”

Three politically motivated killings have already been reported in the lead up to next year’s elections, and monitors fear more violence is inevitable.

“We are taking the power from [commune chiefs],” said Battam­bang province resident Chhum Socheat.

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