The first national elections in Cambodia since 1993 dominated political developments during the year. Too readily declared free and fair by the international community, they were preceded by widespread intimidation of voters, and followed by protests of fraud. In the heaviest violence in Phnom Penh since the 1997 coup by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen against his former coalition partner, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, fierce clashes erupted in September between riot police and demonstrators protesting the victory by Hun Sens Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP). As of mid-October, a new government had not been formed; the prospect of yet another adversarial coalition government between Ranariddh and Hun Sen offered little hopes for stability or human rights improvements. No progress was made during the year toward ending inpunity for rights violations; officials linked to murders and disappearances remained in office, and Khmer Rouge leaders associated with the 1975-79 massacres of a million or more Cambodians remained at large even after Pol Pots death in April. Ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia continued to be a target of political violence.
Hun Sen began to lay the groundwork for the 1998 elections in late 1997 by sending a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on October 22, guaranteeing the safe return of opposition politicians who fled after the coup and pledging to organize fair elections. By the end of November, the United Nations Office of the Secretary-Generals Personal Representative in Cambodia had created a new unit of international personnel, mandated to monitor the physical security and safety of returning political leaders, their freedom from arrest and detention, and their ability to engage in political activities. By early 1998, most had returned. These included Ranariddhs party, Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Independent, Neutre, Pacifique, et Cooperatif, or FUNCINPEC; Sam Rainsys Khmer Nation Party (KNP); and the Son Sann faction of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP). Throughout the first half of the year, the CPP was virtually the only party able to freely and actively conduct political activities throughout the country. It was not until May that opposition parties were legally recognized and not until June that they were fully registered to participate in the election.
Until mid-February, a political impasse over Ranariddhs ability to participate in the elections threatened to block international donor support for the vote. Hun Sen charged that Ranariddh had imported illegal weapons in 1997 and mounted an armed opposition with Khmer Rouge support against government forces. In February, however, a group of donor andneighboring countries known as the Friends of Cambodia endorsed a peace initiative put forward by Japan, and Hun Sen and Ranariddh agreed. Dubbed the Four Pillars plan, it called for an immediate cease-fire and reintegration of resistance forces into the government army, the severing of Ranariddhs ties with the Khmer Rouge, the trial of Prince Ranariddh in absentia followed by his pardon by King Sihanouk, and government guarantees of Ranariddhs safe return to Cambodia.
The latter two provisos were easier to observe than the first two. In a trial held in Phnom Penh Military Court on March 4, Ranariddh was found guilty of the weapons charge and sentenced to five years in prison. In a second trial on March 17, he and two of his generals were convicted of colluding with the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the government. Ranariddh was sentenced to thirty years, and he and his co-defendants were required to pay U.S. $56 million in damages to the government, individuals, and private companies that had incurred losses during the coup. On March 21, King Sihanouk issued a full royal pardon for both of Ranariddhs criminal convictions and released the prince from having to pay any compensation.
A National Election Committee (NEC) was formed in January to organize and monitor the elections and verify the accuracy of the final tally, but it was dominated by the CPP.
Similarly, the Constitutional Council, the nations highest appeals body, which was mandated to resolve electoral disputes and verify the accuracy of the final tally, had a disproportionate number of CPP-affiliated members and was established too late to address most election-related disputes.At party congresses in Phnom Penh in March, two leading opposition parties changed their names because of legal battles with pro-CPP rival factions. The KNP became the Sam Rainsy Party, and one faction of the BLDP became the Son Sann Party. During political party registration, which began on March 28, thirty-nine parties were approved by the Ministry of Interior and the NEC.
A pattern of violence against opposition party workers continued late into the year. Prior to Ranariddhs return on March 3, several high-ranking FUNCINPEC officials were assassinated in Phnom Penh, including Lt. Col. Moung Sameth on March 3, Gen. Thach Kim Sang on March 4, and Lt. Col. Chea Vutha on March 28. Local activists in the countryside were also targeted, as for example in the April 26 grenade attack against Son Sann Party members in Takeo, in which two people were killed.
In April the CPP turned its attention to getting its members appointed to the provincial and commune election commissions and launched a heavy-handed but generally nonviolent party recruitment campaign. Local officials and militia went house to house or conducted mass meetings to solicit thumbprints and pledges from the populace to vote for the CPP, confiscated and recorded identification numbers on voter registration cards, and conducted mock elections before the actual polling, in which people were pressured to vote for the CPP. Although voter registration got off to a rocky start on May 18, the NEC reported that 92 percent of the estimated 5.6 million eligible voters eventually registered to vote.
Top opposition leaders such as Ranariddh and Rainsy began to make high-profile visits to the provinces in May, but the ongoing threat of political violence discouraged activity by local-level opposition members outside Phnom Penh. A May 13, 1998 memorandum from the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia detailed forty-two killings and six long-term disappearances of people presumed killed since the initial forty-one killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of the July 1997 coup. A U.N. report prepared in April concluded that the government had not launched any serious investigations into coup-related abuses and that no investigations were planned.
On June 8, the co-prime ministers signed a directive establishing a National Human Rights Committee. The fact that the committee was led by two top advisers to Hun Sen, and that this was the fourth time since July 1997 that Hun Sen had pledged to set up such a commission, did not inspire confidence that it was a serious effort. A National Task Force on Security for the Elections was established the same month, responsible for investigating election-related violence. Headed by National Police Chief Hok Lundy, himself linked to political murders, the task force concluded that all of the cases it received stemmed from personal motives such as revenge or robbery.
In the final two months preceding the elections the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR) received several hundred allegations of voter intimidation, death threats, acts of violence against individuals, illegal arrests and detention, forced removal or destruction of party signs or shooting at party offices, coercion of voters to join the CPP, temporary confiscation of voter registration cards by local authorities, and barring of party members from access to communities. More than one hundred of the complaints were deemed credible. During the same period, the COHCHR found at least twenty-two murders in which political motivations played a part.
In the elections themselves, 94 percent of the registered voters turned out to vote, observed by the Joint International Observation Group (JIOG), a U.N.-coordinated body of thirty-seven countries. The JIOG dispatched only 250 pairs of observers to cover more than 11,000 polling sites and 1,600 counting centers. Additional observation was handled by Cambodian observers under the auspices of well-respected electoral monitoring NGOs, such as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL) and the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL). Most of the international observer delegations flew in only days before the elections, gave their approval, and left as quickly as they had come. Immediately following the polling, hundreds of opposition activists fled their homes in the provinces after receiving threats of reprisals and death from local officials. Meanwhile, counting continued well into the third week in August.
The JIOG issued its assessment that the voting was free and fair on July 27, before the counting was even completed. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) was the only international observer delegation to avoid making a snap judgment, calling on the NEC on July 30 to investigate complaints of polling and counting irregularities as well as reports of widespread intimidation and threats against opposition party members following the elections.
In preliminary results released by the NEC in August, the CPP was declared the winner, but the opposition rejected the results and demanded a recount. However, after cursory examination of only a fraction of the oppositions complaints, both the NEC and the Constitutional Council declared the appeals process closed. On September 1, the NEC announced the final results: the CPP received sixty-four of 122 National Assembly seats, or a slight majority,while FUNCINPEC got forty-three seats and the Sam Rainsy Party fifteen. The opposition refused to join a coalition government proposed by the CPP, which had not won enough seats for the two-thirds majority required to form the new government on its own. In late August the opposition launched three weeks of protest marches and rallies in Phnom Penh and set up a tent city in front of the National Assembly which they called Democracy Square.
Unprecedented numbers of people took to the streets to call for Hun Sen to step down. Government officials declared that the demonstrations were illegal and threatened to arrest Sam Rainsy.
Anti-Vietnamese sentiments flared in some of the demonstrations and rallies, with opposition politicians charging that Hun Sen and Vietnamese puppets were intent on eliminating the Cambodian people. On August 30, demonstrators attempted to destroy a stone memorial in Democracy Square that commemorates Cambodia-Vietnam friendship, smashing it with hammers and setting it on fire. On September 3 and 4, at least four ethnic Vietnamese were killed in mob violence in Phnom Penh as a result of rumors than more than seventy people had died from drinks or food that had been poisoned by Vietnamese people.
Following a grenade attack on September 7 on Hun Sens residence in Phnom Penh, government forces found a pretext to move against the demonstrators, opening fire outside the Cambodiana Hotel, where Sam Rainsy had taken refuge, killing one man and provoking widespread anger. Over the next week daily clashes broke out between riot police, pro-CPP demonstrators and opposition supporters. Bulldozers were brought in to destroy the tent city, and riot police used electric batons, fire hoses, rifle butts and bullets to disperse protesters around the city. At least two people were killed by government security forces or their agents during the unrest, with another twenty-four deaths under investigation by the COHCHR. Dozens more, including monks, women, and students, were beaten or injured by government security forces, and more than twenty people were arrested. The government banned sixty-eight opposition politicians from leaving the country and threatened that some would be arrested. While the travel ban was effectively lifted on September 24 for most opposition leaders, Son Sann Party candidate Kem Sokha, the former chairman of the National Assemblys Human Rights Commission, continued to be barred from leaving the country. In late September he went into hiding after a court summons was issued in connection with his role in the September demonstrations.
Under intense pressure from the international community and King Sihanouk, the opposition called off the demonstrations . On September 22, the king hosted a meeting in Siem Reap between Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and Rainsy. While this facilitated the swearing in of the new National Assembly on September 24, tensions escalated again when a rocket exploded that morning along the road to the ceremony in what Hun Sen charged was an assassination attempt. Ranariddh, Rainsy and many of their members immediately left Cambodia after the swearing-in ceremony, citing concerns about their personal security.
Fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression faced periodic threats during the year, although large numbers of people, sometimes tens of thousands, were able to gather for political rallies, labor demonstrations, and protest marches. For the most part, candidates were able to speak freely during the campaign. In the course of the crackdown on opposition supporters protesting the election results, however, the government issued a statement on September 9 that banned unauthorized gatherings, particularly those that might disrupt public order and security.
Opposition parties had virtually no airtime on broadcast media during the year, except for the thirty-day official campaignperiod, when NEC regulations provided for somewhat more equitable media access. Even during the campaign, however, the privately owned Apsara and Bayon stations continued to give disproportionate coverage in the first half of July to the CPP, which appeared 446 times, with FUNCINPEC appearing six times and the Sam Rainsy Party nine times.
In September, the Ministry of Information ordered the closure of FM 105, a private radio station owned by an unsuccessful opposition candidate, charging that the station had aired inflammatory programs. In October, opposition newspaper Udom Katte Khmer (Khmer Ideal) was suspended for allegedly publishing stories detrimental to national security and political stability. Also in October, the Minister of Information threatened to revoke the visa of an American reporter and suspend two American-owned publications, the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post , for allegedly biased reporting. After protests from foreign diplomats, the minister backed down.
The court system remained virtually powerless in 1998, with the judiciary subject to political pressure. While no move was made against officials suspected of rights abuses, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in August announced the creation of a Commission of Experts to assess evidence of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, who died on April 15, only days after the United States announced its intention to capture him and his top deputies and bring them to trial. Questions persisted as to the status of other ranking Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive, including those who remain in hiding as well as more than a dozen influential Khmer Rouge who have defected to the government since 1996.
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Human RIghts Watch