Gov’t-Linked Groups Dominate Election Observer Registrations

7 min read
A voter in 2017. (Photo: Heng Vichet)

The top NGOs registered to observe next month’s commune election have evident links to state officials — one headed by a prime minister’s son, another by a deputy prime minister, and a third by a ministry’s secretary of state.

The National Elections Committee late last month confirmed a total of almost 28,000 election observers recruited by seven different organizations, hosting observers across the country. 

Contributing almost 62% of the observers is the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, an organization chaired by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Many. That figure is followed by 35% from the Cambodian Women for Peace and Development — headed by Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An ­— and 2.5% from the Cambodian Democratic Students Intellectual Federation. The latter’s secretary-general is secretary of state at the Rural Development Ministry.

The remainder is filled by the Khmer Youth Volunteer Association, Mett Yeung Organization, Comfrel and the Modern and Traditional Mental Health Organization, with fewer than 50 observers each. Some organizations gave different counts of observers or said they were still waiting for approval.

Many’s UYFC group provided almost half the country’s observers during the National Elections in 2018, and its political connections raised more questions about the legitimacy of that year’s 83% voter turnout records and the Cambodian People’s Party’s sweep of the National Assembly.

A representative for UYFC who answered their office phone asked a reporter to submit a written letter with questions. “Officially we respond to any concern via letter.” VOD dropped off a letter at UYFC early last week.

UYFC is not the only group volunteering election observers that has political connections.

Ahead of the 2018 national election, the Asian Network for Free Elections flagged both the UYFC and CWPD for their leaders’ political roles and affiliations, saying that the use of politically-connected organizations as observers “desecrates” the process of election monitoring, which is meant to prevent bias and influence on voting day. 

“Between the presence of local government officials, CPP party agents and biased observers, all rooting for the ruling party, many voters might feel intimidated when their time comes to enter a polling station and cast their ballot.” 

They repeated this call in an assessment report released ahead of the vote this year. 

“The accreditation of these so-called election observers that are closely linked to the ruling CPP again after the 2018 National Assembly elections is highly questionable and would be detrimental to election integrity.”

Cambodian Women for Peace and Development

A majority of this election’s female observers will come from a decades-old organization called Cambodian Women for Peace and Development, which operates as an NGO working off international funding while also recruiting election observers.

The organization’s president is Deputy Prime Minister Mem Sam An, and its board includes the wives of male provincial governors. Based on its Facebook posts, its most recent activities include organizing a financial literacy program with the National Bank of Cambodia and an Australian NGO called Good Return.

CWPD functions as an NGO, receiving money from USAID through international development organizations like U.S.-based family health agency FHI360. Most of CWPD’s publicly stated activities center on HIV awareness and prevention, including implementing a USAID-created campaign for sex and entertainment workers called SMARTgirl. A 2011 monitoring report from USAID noted that CWPD was contracted to implement its “SMARTgirl” program to offer sexually transmitted infection and HIV testing to entertainment workers, but testing was somewhat limited by “the judgemental attitude of some staff,” among other reasons.

Reached over the phone, CWPD executive director Meach Sotheary said she did not know about the election observation, saying that she mostly works on the organization’s charity work. 

“In the past, we have had the budget for providing the capacity building to all women from all parties to do for success in the election, but now I have no budget to do that,” she said, adding that they did governance capacity projects eight to 10 years ago.

She said that CWPD has an advocacy staff member who would know more about the observers, but she later said they couldn’t give an interview without permission from CWPD’s president — the deputy prime minister.

However, Sotheary insisted on the phone that the organization wasn’t political. She mentioned that the organization had lended a parcel of land in Prek Pnov district to Phnom Penh City Hall during the pandemic to build a quarantine center, but the city returned the land earlier this year.

Authorities have taken fired and striking NagaWorld workers to that property while suppressing protests. Sotheary said this happened after the city returned the land, but said she did not know why the facility was chosen.

According to a 2021 project document published by the Women’s Affairs Ministry, Sotheary has been working for the ministry for more than 14 years, but when asked about her government job over Telegram message, she did not respond.

There are additionally two groups named Cambodian Women for Peace and Development registered as businesses in the U.S. and Australia, though it was unclear whether these were related to the Cambodian organization. The U.S.-based nonprofit business was suspended in 2021 over tax-filing issues, according to the California state business registry.

A reporter called and sent Telegram messages to a contact number listed for the Australia-based organization’s Facebook page, which uses the same logo as the Cambodian organization. But the responder said they were not connected to the Cambodian organization, and when asked why they use the same logo, said they were “very busy” without explaining further. They also wrote “We got enough to do with politic,” again without clarifying why they used the same logo.

Cambodian Democratic Students Intellectual Federation

The third largest contributor of election observers, CDSIF, has existed since 1994, advocating over a range of issues, from organizing a protest against a 2014 deal with Australia to send refugees from Nauru to Cambodia, to a petition supporting official border maps.

They sent 54 election observers to participate in the 2018 election, and their announcements of support in the last three years have been aligned with the CPP agenda.

The organization in 2020 delivered rice, noodles and soy sauce to flood-hit families in Dangkao district on behalf of UYFC chair Hun Many. That year they also sent a letter congratulating Hun Sen on extracting the first drops of Cambodian oil, before the project sputtered under oil company KrisEnergy’s bankruptcy.

Then in October 2021, the organization endorsed a Constitutional amendment banning individuals with dual citizenships from taking top leadership positions — a move seen at the time as targeting opposition leaders in exile — and in December 2021 endorsed Hun Sen’s eldest son Hun Manet as future prime minister.

Porin Sakhon, the deputy secretary general of CDSIF, told VOD that the organization was independent, and also separate from UYFC. Though his Facebook page said that he was employed by the Office of Council of Ministers, he insisted he was not part of the office, saying it must have been a mistake editing his Facebook page.

The CDSIF’s secretary-general is San Visal, who is also a secretary of state for the Rural Development Ministry.

The organization recruits mostly university students who are a part of schools’ business associations and choose to volunteer. They also have to be registered to vote, he added, saying they were in the process of training observers.

“I am arranging training in the upcoming days for the observers to understand about the principle in observing,” he said.

Apart from observation, the organization assists with voter registration processes, Sakhon said.

“We’re not just doing the observation, but the social services,” he said. “Also we’re volunteering, in fact recently we participated in checking the voting list and the registration to vote, which is arranged by the National Election Committee.”

Though CSDIF and Many’s UYFC seem to work on the same election issues, and CSDIF shares numerous posts from Many, Sakhon insisted the organizations were not related: “No, the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia has their job and we have our job.”

Sam Kuntheamy, of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, an NGO, said his organization only recruits volunteers who can show they have no affiliation with a political party in order to make sure they do not impart bias while observing people coming into vote and the ballot counting process. The organization also trains observers to follow a code of conduct focused on impartiality. Nicfec was not on the NEC’s latest list of approved election observers, but Kuntheamy said the NGO had submitted a list of observers and was waiting for approval.

When asked about the independence of other organizations supplying observers, he said he doesn’t see those observers as valid.

“Actually we don’t count them, except Comfrel,” he said. “We learned from them, they are independent, impartial and neutral, [but] the other [organizations’] election observers are not sufficient.”

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