Cambodia: Phnom Penh Bans Cambodia Opposition’s Thumbprint Campaign

Authorities in Phnom Penh on Wednesday banned Cambodia’s opposition party from using public spaces to collect thumbprints for a petition calling for U.N. and foreign intervention in the country’s political crisis following disputed polls.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) plans to collect at least 3 million thumbprints for the petition to present the U.N. in a bid to force Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to conduct an investigation into vote fraud it says the CPP used to win the July 28 election.

Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dymong told RFA’s Khmer Service that CNRP activists gathering thumbprints in the city’s public spaces had “provoked chaos” in the capital and “disturbed public order,” adding that the opposition had neglected to seek permission from city authorities.

“The CNRP can only collect thumbprints at their political party headquarters, but not in public places,” he said.

After municipal authorities announced the ban, security guards at the popular Chbar Ambol market area refused to allow CNRP officials to meet with vendors to add their names to the petition, according to one shop owner who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.

“We vendors voluntarily agreed to provide our thumbprints to the CNRP—no one forced us to do so. But the market security stopped us,” she said.

The shop owner said that she was now concerned that if she gave her thumbprint to the CNRP at the market, security there would “cause me problems,” adding that she planned to go to the opposition headquarters to add her name to the petition when she left for the day.

Opposition response

CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha called the municipality’s ban “illegal” and an “abuse of the people’s rights.”

He said that the decision to collect thumbprints for a petition was part of a bid by his party to reduce tension in the capital as the CNRP and its supporters continued protests against polls it says were tainted by fraud, and calling for an independent, U.N.-backed probe into the irregularities.

“Previously, the authorities said that our demonstrations were affecting public order, but now we are only gathering thumbprints—we are doing nothing wrong,” he said.

“This is a pretext to abuse the people’s rights.”

Over the weekend, the CNRP led a “people’s congress” rally of 15,000 supporters in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park—the party’s first large protest since deadly violence broke out on the sidelines of a demonstration last month—aimed at setting an agenda for the opposition’s next moves following its boycott last month of the first session of parliament since the polls.

Its lawmakers boycotted parliament last month so as not to recognize the election victory of the CPP, which according to official results won 68 parliamentary seats to the CNRP’s 55.

Kem Sokha said Wednesday that the CNRP was gathering thumbprints to call on the U.N. and the 18 countries that signed the Paris Peace Agreements to “pay close attention to Cambodia and seek justice for the election.”

The CNRP has also laid plans for an Oct. 23 nationwide demonstration coinciding with the 22nd anniversary of the Paris accords—a 1991 U.N.-brokered peace deal that laid out a process ending decades of internal conflict in Cambodia and which also emphasized building a democratic society anchored in human rights and the rule of law.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) Director Ou Virak said Wednesday that the municipal government should lift the ban on the CNRP’s thumbprint campaign in public spaces, adding that the petition would help avoid violence amid the city’s post-election tension.

Voter registration

Also on Wednesday, the National Elections Committee (NEC), which oversees Cambodia’s polls, said that it had only registered about 10,000 new voters so far during the country’s annual registration period, which runs from Oct. 1-20 this year.

NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha said that the committee hopes to register at least 300,000 new voters and remove 200,000 phantom voters and names that have been registered more than once for the 2013 voting list.

The CNRP claims that election irregularities, including the removal of one million voters from the electoral rolls, resulted in the CPP “robbing” it of victory in the July polls, and has called for the NEC to reform the country’s voting process.

Tep Nytha said that heavy flooding during the annual rainy season, which has forced thousands from their homes and left more than 100 dead since mid-September, had hampered the NEC’s drive to register voters and that the committee would consider extending the registration period this year.

“About 100 communes are being affected by floods, which have disturbed the voting registration,” he said.

“The NEC is considering an extension of the registration period.”

The NEC said it anticipates the country’s registration list will increase to 10 million voters this year from 9.6 million in 2012.

Registration transparency

Hang Puthea, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), called on the country’s youth to register, adding that “everyone should take time to examine the voting lists and inform the authorities if there are any irregularities.”

Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) Director Koul Panha said that while his organization is not monitoring the registration process, the NEC “must reform its members,” as well as what he called the country’s “complicated registration process.”

Local rights groups have charged that the NEC is biased toward the CPP.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said voters should continue to register and that his party will continue to push the NEC for reforms.