WORLD

Canada and a flawed election

Ottawa aids a process flayed by human rights groups

EMILIA CASELLA July 27 1998
WORLD

Canada and a flawed election

Ottawa aids a process flayed by human rights groups

EMILIA CASELLA July 27 1998

Canada and a flawed election

WORLD

CAMBODIA

Ottawa aids a process flayed by human rights groups

When the mutilated body of Thong Sophal, 45, was found recently in a dry canal bed near Phnom Penh, police called it a suicide. But human rights workers say it is hard to believe that the official from the royalist Funcinpec Party gouged out his own eyes, cut off his fingers and stripped all the flesh from his legs before hitting himself on the back of the head. ‘The level of fear is so strong,” Funcinpec candidate Mu Sochua says, amid tears, of violence in the run-up to Cambodia’s July 26 general election. “Every time we say goodbye to each other in the evening, we don’t know if we will see each other again.”

Sophal’s was the ninth political killing logged by UN human rights officials since the election campaign began in earnest in late May. But despite the murders—and 120 other recorded incidents of political violence and intimidation— the international donors providing most of the $39 million cost of staging the vote insist that the right atmosphere exists for a “free and fair” election. Critics question that judgment, and the election has become a case study in the debate over how to measure progress towards democracy in countries with a history of despotic rule.

Canada is a major player in the 15member Friends of Cambodia group, which on June 20 gave its seal of approval to the election and its financing.

The four senior advisers to Cambodia’s National Election Committee are all Canadians, who have offered expertise on logistics, legal issues, voter education and the drafting of a new electoral law. Canada has spent $2 million on technical assistance and has sent a contingent of 22 observers.

But organizations including the UN and the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch have warned that the election is deeply flawed. To Kek Galabru, a Cambodianborn Canadian who runs the respected Cambodia League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights in Phnom Penh, the continued foreign backing sends a message to Cambodians that “we are not a high priority,” given strong evidence of abuses. “We beg the international community to open their eyes, ears and mouths,” she says. “Speak out and say it’s not fair.”

Concern about the political process has grown since July, 1997, when Cambodian People’s Party Leader Hun Sen ousted his co-premier, Funcinpec’s Prince Norodom Ranarridh, in a bloody two-day coup. In the aftermath, more than 100 people were killed, including Canadian Michael Senior, a resident of Phnom Penh who was shot by two soldiers. Despite Hun Sen’s promise to investigate all extrajudicial killings, no one has been held accountable for Senior’s murder or any of the others.

Of the 39 parties contesting the election, only a handful stand a chance of sending candidates to the National Assembly. The top contenders are Hun Sen’s CPP, Ranarridh’s Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party, run by outspoken former finance minister Sam Rainsy, himself the target of an assassination attempt in March, 1997. The CPP holds many of the strongest cards in the tainted process. Counting will begin only after the ballot boxes are stored overnight, “guarded” by the CPP-controlled police. CPP officials have also been getting villagers to put their thumbprints on documents supporting the CPP, as well as taking down their voter registration numbers, implying that they will know how each person votes (they won’t). Sidney Jones, an official of Human Rights Watch, which has called for postponement of the election, says the biggest obstacle is “the determination of the ruling party to control the electoral process and restrict basic freedoms.” Canadian Ambassador Gordon Longmuir firmly defends Canada’s involvement. “What we have done by providing advisers and technical assistance,” he says, “is to bring influence to bear that there would more likely be a fair election than otherwise.” Critics, he says, think “that Cambodia should overnight somehow become a tiny perfect democracy. That’s not going to happen. It’s a country that is slowly building democracy.”

Supporters note that Cambodia has come a long way since the bloody fouryear reign of Khmer Rouge Leader Pol Pot when up to two million Cambodians died before he was ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979. After a 13-year guerrilla war pitting the Khmer Rouge and anti-communist groups against a Vietnamese-installed government, all sides agreed to a UN peace accord that led to an election in 1993. More than 100 opposition party members were murdered in the run-up to that vote. Since then, the Khmer Rouge has been all but extinguished by internal disputes and defections. Pol Pot died under house arrest in April, and the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin will vote for the first time in the coming election.

Still, impoverished Cambodia could barely survive without international donors, who contribute more than 40 per cent of its $625million annual budget. Canada provides $12 million a year in aid, and the Canadian Forces have sent 35 experts over the past five years to help get rid of five million land mines. Andrew McNaughton, a Phnom Penh-based management consultant and former head of Canada’s International Development Research Centre office there, concedes that since the country still lacks truly democratic institutions, “we won’t have a free and fair election by any stretch of the imagination.” But he believes Cambodia is moving in the desired direction, despite the abuses. “I think the fact that the international community has held its nose and pointed the way is right,” he says. In the meantime, candidates like Mu Sochua just hope they will remain alive to see each new morning.

EMILIA CASELLA in Phnom Penh

EMILIA CASELLA