The Run-Up to Cambodia's 2003 National Assembly Election
Political Expression and Freedom of Assembly under Assault

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, June 12, 2003

The year 2003, when Cambodia is to hold its third national election in a decade, began on a grim note with the murders of a high-profile politician and a senior monk in February. A judge and a court clerk were killed in April, and another judge was attacked and beaten. Twelve activists and supporters of parties not affiliated with the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) have been killed since the February 2002 commune elections.

The Cambodian government has used the January 2003 demonstrations and violence against the Thai embassy and Thai businesses as an excuse to clamp down on fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. New electoral regulations also limit the ability of political parties to meet, while Cambodian voters continue to be denied access to the information needed to make meaningful choices at the ballot box as a direct result of the government's persistent refusal to open up the media to parties not aligned with the CPP.

Although there has been some reform of the governmental National Election Committee (NEC), its ability to act impartially to ensure fair media access, respond to incidents of political violence, ensure a transparent and accurate vote count, and manage the electoral complaints process will indicate how much independence and authority it really has achieved.

This report summarizes the major human rights issues in the run-up to National Assembly elections scheduled for July 2003, and includes recommendations to the Cambodian government, the NEC, the political parties, and Cambodia's international donors.


On July 27, 2003, Cambodia will hold its third national election since the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. There has been one local, or commune, election, which was held in February 2002.

Despite the heavy involvement of the international community, political pluralism still has not established deep roots in Cambodia. International human rights standards require "genuine periodic elections ... guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors."1 Cambodia now has periodic elections, but there is great doubt about how genuine they have been or will be.

All three elections in Cambodia since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements have been conducted in an atmosphere of serious violence and intimidation. Reports by the United Nations and international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have documented that the CPP has been responsible for organized violence and intimidation. The failure of the Cambodian police and courts to address these human rights violations has played a significant role in establishing the general climate of impunity that continues to characterize Cambodia. It has also contributed to widespread skepticism about whether power will ever be transferred peacefully from the ruling party to an opposition party if the election results so require.

Official coercion and intimidation force voters to make their choices at least in part based on fears for their personal security or livelihood instead of ideology or policy preferences. Prime Minister Hun Sen's CPP has not allowed more than nominal power to be transferred from the party to the legislature, judiciary, or many other government sectors, including the police and army. Ten years after Cambodia's first multi-party elections, it remains difficult to distinguish between the party and the state. Not only has the CPP done little to curb rampant corruption or the gross expropriation of state resources, it has also used these means to finance election campaigns and to enrich itself in order to maintain its dominance over the military, police, lucrative natural resources, and the national infrastructure. For example, Global Witness estimates that between January 1997 and February 1998, the national treasury lost U.S. $184 million in revenue to illegal logging. As has been the case since 1993, elections in Cambodia must be considered in a context where the CPP's disproportionate and, in some respects, unlawful advantages are allowed to systematically influence all aspects of governance.

As part of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) conducted Cambodia's elections in May 1993. Although Funcinpec,2 the royalist party, earned a plurality of votes, the CPP's threat to use force to hold onto power led to the creation of an uneasy coalition government. Relations between Funcinpec and the CPP deteriorated to such an extent that in July 1997 the CPP ousted Funcinpec from the government in a military coup that left at least 100 Funcinpec and opposition party supporters dead.

The elections that followed in July 1998 thus took place in an environment of fear in which the CPP controlled all important government and state institutions. The CPP reactivated its "cell system" used in the 1993 elections, in which party agents were assigned to monitor and pressure a set number of families to join the party and vote for the CPP, with quotas set for the number of votes these "group leaders" were to deliver. Tactics to persuade voters included coerced Buddhist oath-taking ceremonies at which holy water was drunk while voters promised their vote to the party. These and other efforts at intimidation helped to create serious doubts among the rural electorate as to whether their ballots would be secret.

Given the intense political violence in the run-up to the 1998 polls, the control by the CPP of the electoral administration, the military and police, and the lack of significant media access for other parties, the CPP's victory at the ballot box that year did not come as a surprise. Complaints about the electoral process led to post-election demonstrations and violence in the capital, leaving at least twenty-six people dead. Following a three-month stalemate, Funcinpec agreed in November 1998 to form another coalition government with the CPP, this time in a highly subordinate role. The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) won fifteen of the 122 seats in the National Assembly and has functioned, often under threat, as a highly vocal opposition party.

In February 2002 Cambodia held its first-ever commune elections. Cambodia has 1,621 communes, which are administrative units consisting of four to seven villages. Commune chiefs are pivotal in the country's power structure, as they oversee the daily affairs of approximately 85 percent of Cambodia's population. Under the commune election system, chiefs were replaced for the first time with popularly elected commune councils and commune chiefs. Prior to the 2002 balloting, almost all of the country's commune chiefs were CPP appointees, and many had held these positions since the 1980s.

The commune elections were originally scheduled to take place before the 1998 national election, but were repeatedly delayed. When pressure from donors in 2001 finally forced the government to hold them as part of an overall decentralization strategy, the government decided to elect commune councils rather than chiefs and to elect them on a party basis, rather than on an individual basis.

In the year before the commune elections, fifteen SRP and Funcinpec activists and commune council candidates were killed and twenty-two SRP and Funcinpec supporters were illegally detained. In addition, there were 176 reports of threats or intimidation of candidates running against the CPP, forty-eight cases of property violations against Funcinpec and opposition party supporters, and dozens of complaints about voter intimidation and security violations that went unanswered. Although representatives
of different political parties now serve on many of the councils, the party distribution of commune chief positions--ten for Funcinpec, thirteen for SRP, and 1,598 for CPP--reflects the ability of the CPP to force through electoral rules in its own favor. The result is that despite the large number of votes cast for other parties, the ruling party's apparatus remains almost completely in place.

1 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, article 25(b). Cambodia ratified the ICCPR in 1992.

2 Funcinpec is the acronym derived from the party's French name (Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Independent, Neutre, Pacifique, et Cooperatif).