Funcinpec officials called Sunday for the speedy return of the estimated 80,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand so they can vote in upcoming elections.
But with tension still high near the border and only 15 days left in the voter registration period, it appears increasingly unlikely that the refugees will be able to participate in the scheduled July 26 elections.
Funcinpec Secretary-General Tol Lah said Sunday the party wants all eligible voters to have the right to participate in the elections.
“We would like to ask the international community to help us so that the refugees have the same self-determined rights that the other people all over the country have,” Tol Lah said. “We cannot neglect the rights of the people.”
Added to the thorny issue of refugees is the problem of thousands of Cambodians in recently captured Khmer Rouge areas who now want to vote. At least 2,000 ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers near Preah Vihear Temple have appealed to the National Election Committee to be registered to vote, according to NEC spokesman Leng Sochea.
NEC Secretary-General Im Suorsdei said Saturday that he would like to register all Cambodians, but he wasn’t sure what else elections officials can do.
“We will have to see if we can increase the number of registration centers or not,” Im Suorsdei said. “We have not decided.”
NEC members have said they are about $7 million short of the estimated $27 million needed to run the elections.
As for refugees, Im Suorsdei said those returning are welcome to register in the closest polling place they can find. But, he said, the NEC has no plans to open new registration centers in UN-run refugee reception centers.
Funcinpec spokesman May Sam Oeun questioned whether an election that excludes so many potential voters can be credible. And he said that soldiers in the resistance army loyal to deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh are waiting to be reintegrated into RCAF so they can vote, too.
“It is not free and fair if 75,000 Cambodian [refugees] and all the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces loyal to the first prime minister are not able to register,” May Sam Oeun said.
“It will be very hard to bring them back before June 15. Otherwise they have to delay the registration [closure] date,” he said.
The UN estimates that about 80,000 Cambodians are living in refugee camps in Thailand after fleeing fighting between government troops and the prince’s forces or between RCAF and hard-line Khmer Rouge.
As long as the refugees stay in Thailand, they cannot register to vote. Prospective voters must provide a definite address in Cambodia, according to the electoral law.
While more than 4,300 have returned with help of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, most of the remaining refugees are still too afraid to return to their homes, said Nellie Chan, director of the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh office. She said the areas those refugees are from, such as Samlot district in Battambang province, are still considered unsafe.
“As long as it is still volatile…then we can’t really facilitate their return,” Chan said Sunday.
And even those who have returned may not be able to reach a registration center. Chan said she wrote a letter to the NEC last month proposing that the body establish registration centers at the UN reception centers for returning refugees. She has not received a response.
Thun Saray, spokesman for the Cambodian Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said Sunday that the NEC should take action to ensure refugees can vote.
“The NEC should send a mobile team to register them in the camps,” he said. “They have the right to vote…they are not there according to their own will. It is because of the fighting,”
However, he stopped short of saying that the exclusion of refugees would damage the elections’ credibility. “I cannot say it is not free and fair only because 70,000 people cannot vote.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)