Election Begins Amid Controversy, Hesitant Hope

NEC Boots 2 Nat’l Observer Groups At Last Minute

kompong cham town – With less than 16 hours before the polls open, electoral officials and ob­servers here were scrambling to ensure members of two disqualified observer groups will be kept out of voting stations.

Provincial election commission Chairman Yin Bunthith said Sat­urday he received news of the decision to disqualify the Bud­dhist Relief Association for the Poor and the Khmer Youth As­sociation of Development Far­mers early that afternoon. He immediately radioed commune poll officials to relay the news.

Similar moves were taking place across the country. The National Election Committee on Friday disqualified the groups, eliminating about half of 60,000 national poll watchers.

NEC Secretary-General Im Soursdei said the groups were disqualified because the committee found “abnormalities” with the groups. He did not elaborate.

NEC member Tip Jahnvibol said polling station officials are being ordered to refuse entry to anyone representing either organization. Any post-election report would also be ignored, he added.

The two local NGOs had registered more than 30,000 people to observe Sunday’s election. The groups fell under suspicion when it was learned they may be linked to the CPP or the military.

Thun Saray of Comfrel on Saturday welcomed the decision but said it might not have much impact so close to the poll.

With the official observer badges lacking names of organizations, he said, it is likely some will get into the polling stations, especially in the provinces.

An Asean diplomat said the late NEC decision would inevitably cause confusion today at many polling stations nationwide.

Election officials in at least two provinces, Kompong Cham and Siem Reap, said late Saturday they had yet to receive instructions on which observers to ban.

Yuk Boheng, chief of the Neang Kong Hing polling station committee, about 3 km outside Kompong Cham town did not know about Saturday’s surprising decision and also was un­aware of the late Thursday order to give the three main groups priority.

“All I know is that if any ob­servers have the yellow card, it has to match their voter registration card and they can come in,” he said.

Commune election commission chief Hai Nguon Lin said he had been notified at 3 pm Sat­urday and planned to relay the message to the station chiefs that evening while dispensing election supplies. But he acknowledged getting the information to the province’s 1,781 remote polling stations would be difficult.

Meanwhile, election groups given priority by the NEC were rushing to complete the delayed accreditation of their observers.

Yin Bunthith said of the eight groups who had received cards, only Comfrel, Coffel and Nicfrec fulfilled the NEC’s latest criteria. But he said it was up to the NEC to decide on other NGOs.

“Even if they don’t disqualify organizations, it’s okay,” he said. “The more observers the better.”

In Siem Reap, commune poll officials interviewed late Saturday were unaware of the NEC decision. A Siem Reap rights worker said he expected poll officials and observers to be confused today.

Pen Bunrith, the legal officer for the provincial election commission, said his office issued an order striking some 670 obser­vers from the two disqualified groups late Saturday afternoon, leaving the provinces’ 690 poll stations with 1,400 poll watchers.

Some election officials wondered what the Buddhist Relief Assoc­iation would do now. In Kompong Chhnang, the group set up an office but closed after the provincial election committee took suspicious cards to examine more closely. “We don’t know where they are or what to expect from them [Sunday],” said one international observer.

A Buddhist Relief Association official in Takeo on Saturday, before learning of the NEC decision, complained his group had only gotten a small portion of the cards they had been promised.

“Why is the NEC denying us now, why are they now only issuing 313 cards?” Uk Chhom said angrily. “It is no matter whether we are connected to the military or not. They should accept the number [1,440] because the number was already accepted.”

One international observer in Kompong Cham said the NEC’s decision to bar the NGOs could backfire. “The CPP could say we trusted these guys and you disqualified them,” he cautioned. “They could use it to say the elections weren’t free and fair.”

The NEC on Thursday or­dered the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, the Commit­tee for Free and Fair Elections and the Neutral and Independent Com­mittee for Free and Fair Elections to be given priority on polling day.

On Friday, the EU’s special representative, Glenys Kinnock, called for an investigation. Tip Jahnvibol denied the decision was in response to her demands.

“The government gave us pow­er to decide to take action,” he said.

(Reporting by Kay Kim­song and Catherine Philp in Kompong Cham, Van Roeun and Marc Levy in Siem Reap, Pin Sisovann and Jeff Smith in Takeo, and Debra Boyce)

 

 

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