The country’s election commission has decided that it will accept election registrations from soldiers who signed up in communes where they neither work nor live, despite the dubious legality of the situation.
The National Election Committee (NEC) decision was spurred by a September 21 opposition complaint saying that hundreds of soldiers in Battambang, Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces had been allowed to register in CNRP strongholds rather than communes where they reside or were stationed, violating the election law.
In October, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said that an investigation into the Preah Vihear cases had confirmed 90 soldiers working as day laborers on a plantation in Chheb district’s Chheb II commune had improperly registered there in a situation that he described as “wrong and not wrong.”
On Thursday, Mr. Puthea said registrations in the three provinces would be accepted because the soldiers either did part-time farm work in the communes where they were registered or would be sent there to provide security come election day.
“There was registration in some communes where some soldiers went to work at plantations and took the opportunity to register,” Mr. Puthea said.
In other cases, the “Ministry of Defense decided to assign soldiers to protect public security at voter stations, so the NEC has accepted their voter registrations,” he said.
Mr. Puthea said that the Defense Ministry had not provided any documentation showing that it had specific plans for which soldiers would guard which polling stations. He also claimed not to know how many of the soldiers in question would guard the stations where they registered.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said that he, too, was in the dark about the number of soldiers involved, but said they had done “nothing illegal.” His rationale, however, differed from Mr. Puthea.
“In brief, the election law does not ban anyone having a [military] mission in a particular place to register in that commune,” he said. “If we follow the procedure correctly, it’s not illegal.”
Asked whether soldiers had been dispatched to CNRP strongholds, General Socheat said only that the soldiers were “stationed along the Cambodia-Thailand border, so they cannot travel to register at distant provinces.”
Koul Panha, head of the independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that the military had no business being involved in providing security at polling stations.
“They always say military has some role,” he said on Friday. “It’s only the police who take care of security. It’s not the military.”
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said the ministry had exploited a “loophole in the law.”
“I think what they should have done is the Ministry of Defense should allow them to go home to register to vote,” she said, adding that any flexibility in registration places for soldiers should also be granted to Cambodia’s migrant laborers.
“It’s the calculation of the Ministry of Defense to bring the soldiers to communes where CPP lost in 2013,” she said.