Two Arrested for Transporting Abstain-From-Vote T-Shirts

Police in Banteay Meanchey province arrested two men on Monday who were allegedly transporting T-shirts emblazoned with words urging people to abstain from voting in this month’s national election, police said Tuesday.

Poipet City police chief Oum Sophal and provincial deputy police chief Chan Kosal said only that the two men were arrested while transporting the T-shirts across the border to Thailand, though they de­clined to reveal what crime the two men had been charged with.

“Two were arrested for anti-election T-shirts. I don’t know much about this,” Mr. Kosal said.

Hong Chanpha said she and her husband, Seng Sok Meng, were both taken into custody Monday evening and driven to Poipet City police headquarters, where officers soon released her but detained her husband.

Ms. Chanpha said her husband had been hired to take a consignment of more than 50 T-shirts, 24 radios and 250 watches into Thailand and donate them to Cambodian migrant workers. She said her husband had then hired another person to deliver the merchandise, who was also arrested Monday morning before crossing the border.

It was unclear Tuesday who produced the T-shirts, why they were being transported to Thailand or what laws had been broken.

Ms. Chanpha also said she did not know who had hired her husband to deliver the merchandise. The shirts included the phrases “Cambodian citizens unite to fight against the elections” and “Please don’t go to vote,” she said.

“It is [an] injustice because we don’t belong to any political party,” she said of the arrests. “My husband is just an ordinary middleman who hired a laborer to transport the material across the border into Thailand for Cambodian workers there.”

National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha said he had heard of the arrests and that provincial election officials were investigating.

Without drawing any conclusions, Mr. Nytha said the law covering Na­tional Assembly elections did spell out penalties for those guilty of “disrupting” the vote, which he indicated was the case regarding the consignment of T-shirts, radios and watches.

“Even if he was employed to do it, it is still wrong because the election law states that both the mastermind and the actual offender are guilty of wrongdoing,” he said.

The law specifically allows the NEC to take punitive measures against anyone who “disrupts the polling process” or “disturbs the polling.”

Koul Panha, who heads the independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said he did not believe the mere distribution of T-shirts urging people to abstain from voting was a disruption of the election.

“In my opinion it should not qualify; people can have opinions,” he said. “The opinion to not vote is not positive…but if you just express [an] opinion, to me it should not qualify [as a violation] under election law.”

Mr. Panha noted Thailand’s own election laws expressly make room for groups that regularly implore prospective voters to abstain from casting a vote.

But, he added, such freedoms need to be monitored to guard against those who might try to coerce other people into not voting.

“We should make sure it is not manipulated by people in power,” Mr. Panha said.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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