Some officials at the Buddhist Relief Association were a little puzzled two months ago when their new president suddenly increased the number of its group’s election observers from about 1,000 to more than 24,000.
Their confusion turned to concern when soldiers in uniform started dropping by the office to pick up membership cards.
“I think most of these new observers are from the army. I am afraid that they will cause trouble on election day,” one of the group’s central committee members said Tuesday on condition of anonymity. “One person already threatened me, saying that if I complain about this, they will arrest me.”
She might be even more concerned if she knew who the Buddhist Relief Association’s new president works for. Nol Sophat, who took over the NGO’s presidency earlier this year, is employed by General Nhim Vanda, a top adviser to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“He works for Nhim Vanda. He gets salary from Nhim Vanda. But he volunteers to work with me,” said former association president Sok Sony, who has temporarily resigned from the NGO to stand as a candidate in the election. He appointed Nol Sophat as his stand-in earlier this year.
Nol Sophat, who confirmed he works as a fund-raiser for the powerful CPP general, said he has no problem staying neutral. He said he only wants to help ensure that the July 26 elections are free and fair. “I am honest like a Buddhist. I am not a part of politics,” Nol Sophat said Tuesday.
But the Buddhist Relief Association’s link to a top general—whose position as a Hun Sen adviser is listed as equal to that of a minister—raises flags among some election watchdog groups.
And the news adds to fears that the CPP, which is already accused of intimidation and vote-buying in the run-up to the elections, may be trying to crowd out established election monitoring groups with hand-picked “observers” of its own.
“I think it is not possible for this organization to be neutral and impartial,” said Thun Saray, president of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections , which is planning to send 10,000 trained Cambodian monitors on polling day.
Thun Saray echoed worries that the unexpected surplus of Cambodian observers might crowd out internationally credible monitoring groups like Comfrel and its sister group, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections.
“If they only allow one observer in the polling station at a time, I think Comfrel and Coffel could only be in the station for two hours,” he said. “If that is so…they will have problems about the credibility of the elections.”
An international election observer said Tuesday that observer groups with shady ties threatened to taint what he called “serious” Cambodian monitoring groups. “The credibility of their work could be undermined by partisan observer groups.”
With more than 24,000 names on its National Election Committee-approved list, the Buddhist Relief Association has the highest number of observers of any of the 13 groups that have registered national monitors with the NEC.
How many of the 24,000 are military, police or CPP members is hard to know. But Sok Sony and Nol Sophat admitted that at least one RCAF officer, Colonel Lim Hak, is signed up as an observer.
Lim Hak, who is assigned to the Military Court, was seen by a human rights worker last week at the Buddhist Relief Association office. “He is just a local person who came to pick up a yellow [observer accreditation] card,” Sok Sony explained. “He is not a leader.”
He said he did not think there were any other military or police who were signed up as observers. “We asked. Nobody said they were soldiers,” Sok Sony said. “Some people, they come one day and don’t wear a uniform and the next day you see them in uniform. So it is hard to tell.”
How the tiny NGO, whose mission is to provide aid for the needy, came to have 24,000 observers is a long story. It started when Sok Sony, who lived in the US for nearly 20 years before returning to Cambodia in 1993 to start a business, decided to stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Free Development Republican Party, headed by Ted Ngoy.
Sok Sony said he resigned the leadership of the Buddhist Relief Association “until after the campaign,” appointing Nol Sophat as president in his place in January. Nol Sophat had not previously been a member of the group.
A few months ago, Nol Sophat suggested the association merge with four other groups, Sok Sony said. More than 22,000 new observers were brought in by the four groups, the Ta Prom Development Association, the Vocational Training Association, the Veterans Development Association, and Kiyad, Sok Sony said.
The sudden increase of the observer project raised the suspicions of some officials at the Buddhist Relief Association.
A member of the association’s central committee said the group seemed to have a sudden influx of money. She said the group had previously had trouble finding $200 to print association membership cards for 1,021 people recruited to be election observers. But the group seemed to have no trouble printing up new observers’ membership cards, which cost more than $4,000, she said.
The disgruntled central committee member of the Buddhist Relief Association could not estimate how many of the new observers are military or police.
“It is difficult to find evidence,” she said, but added that in many cases, “when [observers] came to pick up their cards, they were wearing uniforms.”
She also suspects that the identities of some of the 1,021 original observers she helped recruit, who have not yet received their cards, may be assumed by others on election day.
The woman said she has filed a complaint with the Interior Ministry and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and she plans to go to the NEC. “Then I will give my children away and go away somewhere,” she said, recalling the arrest threat she said she received from Sok Sony’s bodyguard.
“In Cambodia, people are killed, not just arrested.”
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