The waning of post-election political violence in Cambodia following an appeal by the Second Prime Minister Hun Sen showed that the Cambodian leader did indeed have the power to turn such violence on and off at will, Human Rights Watch said in a statement today. But the organization said that the fear created by attacks and threats in the immediate post-election period had already done its work, making people in Phnom Penh and outside the capital wary of voicing dissent or supporting opposition organizations. It called on the international community to exert pressure on Hun Sen to disarm and punish the perpetrators of the latest incidents of attacks on opposition party members so that Cambodians could freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
Following Cambodia's July 26 election, hundreds of opposition party activists fled their homes after a wave of reprisals and threats by officials or security forces affiliated with Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Dozens of opposition members have sought safety in provincial party offices, while others have gone into hiding or made their way to political party headquarters or relatives' homes in Phnom Penh.
"The fact that the violence has subsided temporarily does nothing to ease the intense fear among opposition supporters, particularly in the provinces, that they are going to become targets of violence. It also does nothing to prevent another wave of repression against them once the international spotlight is lifted," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "This kind of intimidation has been occurring since the July 1997 coup, and few concrete steps have been taken by the authorities to curb it. The ultimate effect is to stifle political participation."
Human Rights Watch said that the intimidation of opposition members decreased after an August 1 televised appeal for calm by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose Cambodian People's Party emerged as the top vote-getter in preliminary election results released last week. However, the rights organization has continued to document ongoing threats and retaliation against opposition members in the ten days following Hun Sen's statement, which was distributed by officials in the provinces.
Opposition members have reported that they have been threatened by village and commune chiefs, or their houses have been surrounded by soldiers or militia men, often armed with AK47s or other weapons. In several instances, shots have been fired at opposition members or their houses, although to date no one has been killed. In addition, several opposition activists have been beaten up or followed by members of the CPP, or by commune and militia chiefs. In many of these cases, opposition members have been threatened with death unless they leave their homes.
In some instances opposition members have fled their villages without having received specific or direct threats, prompted instead by fears instilled during the volatile months preceding the elections, in which villagers were warned of repercussions should they vote the "wrong" way.
Most of the people targeted after the election have been opposition activists who served as election monitors for their parties, particularly those who lodged complaints about irregularities in the polling and counting processes. In addition, two of the widows of opposition activists murdered during the election campaign have also been harassed by local officials for speaking to the press or asked to sign statements that they are members of the CPP. Some Cambodians who served as election observers for independent local NGOs in the provinces have also received threats or been pressured not to release incriminating information about election irregularities. In some communes where the CPP lost, village chiefs and/or militia chiefs have been demoted or reassigned, suggesting that the CPP may begin to launch an internal sweep of its own ranks aimed at party members who did not deliver the vote.
In a new wave of reprisals during the last week, activists returning to their home provinces from Phnom Penh were threatened for complaining to human rights organizations, their party offices, or the foreign media.
The fact that that there was high voter turnout and few incidents on polling day does not mean that there was a neutral political environment in which all parties could freely compete. The entire year preceding election day was marked by political violence, widespread intimidation, and murders of opposition members and supporters of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was ousted in the July 1997 coup. In the two months prior to the election, eighteen people were killed in murders that appeared to have been related to the electoral process, according to the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The majority of the cases of post-election reprisals have come from the provinces of Takeo, Prey Veng, Kompong Cham, and Svay Rieng, with incidents reported in Kratie, Kompong Thom, Siem Reap, Kampot, Koh Kong, Kandal, and Phnom Penh as well. The following cases documented by Human Rights Watch are illustrative (names and other identifying details have been deleted to protect the security of sources):
- On August 6 at 7:30 p.m. an unidentified man with his face covered by a scarf assaulted a Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) youth activist in his home in Prey Chor District, Kompong Cham. The youth was wearing a SRP party T-shirt at the time.
- On August 5 at 8 p.m., a member of the commune militia in Kien Svay District, Kandal shot three bullets in the air in front of the house of a SRP activist who had previously complained about party agents not being allowed to accompany ballot boxes from the commune counting center to the provincial town.
- On August 5 in Kompong Trabek District, Prey Veng, four militia threatened a member of Prince Ranariddh's Funcinpec Party by saying, "If you continue to serve Funcinpec, tomorrow we will shoot you dead." The activist went into hiding in another province.
- On August 3 at 11:00 p.m. six unidentified men with their faces covered by scarves, all armed with AK47 rifles, gathered at the house of a SRP activist from Svay Reap District, Svay Rieng. The group disbanded when a group of villagers returning from a video parlor passed by. The activist went into hiding.
- On August 3 at 7:30 p.m. in Koh Kong, a member of the village militia called a SRP activist to come out of his house and then fired a gun at him, missing. When the activist ran back into his house, the armed man continued to shout that he was going to kill him. A local policeman arrived and got the perpetrator to leave but did not disarm him. Half an hour later, the perpetrator returning, aiming his gun again at the SRP activist before being chased off again. That night the SRP signboard was pulled down from in front of the house of the activist, who went into hiding.
- On August 1 in Peam Ro district, Prey Veng, a commune chief threatened to "take out" (i.e. kill) seven Funcinpec members in the commune.
- On July 28 at 12:00 noon in Ang Snuol District, Kandal, six armed soldiers beat up a SRP activist who was wearing a SRP T-shirt, saying, "You know Sam Rainsy lost the election, why are you still staying around this village?" The victim went home and stayed there until the afternoon of August 2, when he planned to go to the SRP office in Phnom Penh. Along the way he met four of the same soldiers who had beaten him previously. They asked him where he was going and accused him of going to lodge a complaint at the party headquarters in Phnom Penh. One threatened to kill him. The soldiers took the activist's party membership papers and burnt them, and then slapped and kicked him. "Don't go to Phnom Penh," he was told. "Go home and wait for your death." The man did not return to his house that night but slept at a friend's home in the same village. That evening at 8:00 p.m. his younger brother came to tell him that soldiers and police were at his house looking for him and accusing their mother of hiding him. That evening the man's uncle took the man to another province, where he went into hiding.
- On July 27 at 12:20 p.m. in Kirivong District, Takeo, a SRP observer was shot at after leaving a ballot counting center. The victim, who was unharmed, had lodged several complaints during the polling and counting process, and had been told by the Commune Chief, "You're objecting too much?I will shoot you." After the SRP observer left the counting station two men followed him on a motorcycle, firing an AK47 at him but missing. The SRP activist fled to another province.
- On July 27 a SRP party observer from Peam Ro District, Prey Veng, who had lodged several complaints during the polling and counting processes, was insulted and beaten in the face and on the arm by a CPP group leader. The man fled to Phnom Penh, where he was interviewed by the press. On August 3, the man's wife came to Phnom Penh as well, to warn her husband not to return because local authorities were angry that her husband had spoken to the foreign broadcast media about being harassed.
- On July 27 in Chikreng District, Siem Reap, a SRP activist who had raised complaints with election officials during the counting was threatened by security staff at the counting site. "Do you want to die?" they asked. Later that day, ten district police men armed with AK47s went to the activist's house and shot into the air, telling the man's wife, "Your husband has run with Sam Rainsy? Tell him to go and stay with Rainsy. If we comes back we will shoot him dead."
On July 27 and 28 in Peam Ro District, Prey Veng, a Funcinpec commune leader's house was surrounded by three armed men for two consecutive nights. His wife, a market seller, overheard three policemen say that they "had a plan" for her husband. With that information, he decided to flee the village.