US Monk Urges Cambodians Against Voting

A US-based monk is leading an international campaign to persuade Cambodians to abstain from voting this Sunday.

“This election is a setup,” said the Venerable Natha-Pandito Rithipol, founder of the Khmer National Salvation Committee. “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen has already made up his mind that he will grab more than two-thirds of the seats. That is why we are appealing to the people not to go rubber-stamp this fake election.”

For more than a year, Natha-Pandito Rithipol has been traveling to Cambodian expatriate communities to gain support for his crusade. He predicts that between 1 million and 3 million of Cambo­dia’s 6 million registered voters will stay home on Election Day—a bold claim when the voter turnout in past elec­tions has been upward of 90 percent.

Natha-Pandito Rithipol is found­er and leader of the Khmer Na­tion­al Salvation Committee, which he says enlisted more than 1,000 “founding members” last year.

He will reveal little about these volunteers or their activities, however, citing security concerns. Natha-Pandito Rithipol’s speaking engagements have drawn large crowds. But it is unclear whether his boycott idea has significant support among Cambodians in Cambodia or abroad, or in the international community. And the campaign won’t include a return visit to Cambodia by Natha-Pandito Rithipol, who has twice fled the country in fear of his life.

Natha-Pandito Rithipol escaped the Khmer Rouge after it seized the capital in April 1975. He settled in the US and re­turned to Cambo­­dia in 1998 to obs­erve Cam­bo­dia’s second postwar national election.

Angered by what he saw, he led a September demonstration of about 1,000 monks to protest what they saw as unfair vote counting. Dozens of monks were injured in the crackdown that followed. Altogether, at least 26 people were killed in post-election violence following protests by monks and opposition parties, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Natha-Pandito Rithipol was escorted out of Cambodia with help from the US Embassy, even as police tried to arrest him, “as I was getting on the plane,” Rithipol said. “So they put me on the blacklist since then.”

Natha-Pandito Rithipol has spoken of his crusade on Radio Free Asia. But he says the Cambodian me­dia has refused to give him a hear­ing. Instead, he is relying large­ly on expatriate Cambodians call­ing or mailing audiotapes or videotapes to their families back home.

Natha-Pandito Rithipol’s campaign faces considerable skepticism, even on the part of international observers who agree with him that the el­ections are oc­curring under a cloud of intimidation and har­ass­ment.

“It is true that the likelihood of clean elections is not high,” said Elise Schoux of the International Re­pub­lican Institute, a US-based or­ga­nization with observers in Cam­bo­dia. But “in general we en­cour­age people to exercise their franchise to vote, because that’s how peo­ple can actually change things.”

The campaign has also run into skepticism among leaders in the Cambodian-American community. “I don’t believe in this idea of a boycott,” said Vong Ros, executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Aid Association of Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts. “You’re just telling people not to get involved.”

But Natha-Pandito Rithipol contended that an abstention would send two important messages. It would tell opposition leaders that they must stop bickering and work together to topple the CPP, he said. And it would tell the international community to stop supporting elections that they know to be unfair.


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