Sam Rainsy Party supporters took to the streets by the hundreds Monday morning to protest election registration irregularities, but the opposition leader reserved much of his venom for the international community, which he accused of remaining idle while millions of Cambodians are refused the right to vote.
“Many diplomats and representatives are very complacent—their life is easy here and they turn a blind eye [to government abuses],” Sam Rainsy said outside the headquarters of the UN Development Program, one of four institutions he marched on with a patchwork mob of some 500 to 700 poor villagers, motorcycle taxi drivers, monks, activists and gawkers.
He took his protest first to the National Assembly before making brief speeches in front of the offices of the European Union, the UN Development Program and the National Election Committee, which he accused of being a puppet of the ruling CPP.
A small number of police helped direct traffic around the demonstrators at each stop but remained largely hands-off. Only at the Assembly did they ask Sam Rainsy to leave—an order he quickly and uncharacteristically obeyed.
He took special aim at the UNDP, saying he was forced to make his appeal to the agency’s New York headquarters because UNDP officials here are too soft on the government.
“We note that the UNDP has been deficient. They have been rather lenient. The UNDP must be prepared to tell the NEC that it will not endure a sham election,” he said.
UNDP head Dominique McAdams accepted the opposition’s appeal letter. She said later that the agency has been in touch with the government over registration problems, and that letters have been sent by the NEC to the Interior Ministry and commune chiefs better outlining registration duties.
“This is a mechanism to ensure that everyone understands their role,” she said.
The opposition’s march marks the first public protest of voter registration—which began Jan 17—and has come under fire from both the opposition and Funcinpec as well as international observers who say the procedures are complicated and not well understood either by local NEC officials or those commune officials who are doing the registering.
“This is the second week of registration and I have gotten many complaints from victims who have demanded the NEC improve its administration,” said Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy, who joined the demonstration. “Nowadays the situation of the NEC is not clear, it is very hard to understand.”
Critics of the process say government officials are requiring an excessive number of documents to prove residency—documents that poor or young voters often do not have.
Om Soun, 62, said he has returned repeatedly to the Tonle Bassac commune office to register, but has been rejected each time because he has no 1998 election registration card. “Not only me, but my entire family has not been allowed to register—the reason is this red tape,” he said.
The failure to register millions of eligible voters was a major complaint of the February 2002 commune elections. According to government figures, some 1.6 million of Cambodia’s 6.8 million voters have yet to be registered. The latest NEC count of newly registered voters stands at 200,000—a lower than expected figure, according to the Committee for Free and Fair and Elections.
The opposition claims the government’s attempts to marginalize its members have gone beyond administrative harassment to include intimidation and the confiscation of party election materials. Police in Kandal province admitted seizing broadcast equipment and leaflets in Kien Svay district last week, saying they were used by party officials to spread opposition propaganda rather than registration information, Pen Vuth, chief of Chheu Teal commune, said Sunday.
Charges that Sam Rainsy is illegally propagandizing have been backed up by the NEC, as well as some local election monitors. Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said Sam Rainsy’s sharp criticisms of the government could be seen as premature campaigning.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)