Fears of post-election protests, violence in Cambodia

CAMBODIA - Sunday's general election in Cambodia is fraught with irregularities detected by election watchdogs and tainted by complaints from the main opposition party.

The complaints include "indelible" ink - to mark voters' fingers so they do not vote repeatedly - that can be washed off quite easily with a commercially available cosmetic product.

They also include hundreds of thousands of voters' names that have apparently inexplicably "disappeared" from the lists of registered voters. Among the concerns, there is even the opposite: swollen lists indicating thousands of phantom voters.

With expectations high on the part of both the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and its main rival, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), analysts are worried about post-election protests and violence if the results are disputed.

The country's National Election Committee (NEC) sought to reassure voters at a press conference late yesterday afternoon, dismissing many of the allegations as based on rumours.

But Mr Im Suosdey, chairman of the NEC, acknowledged that the indelible ink donated by India was substandard. He appealed to the 291 international observers and more than 40,000 registered local observers to help the electoral process by reporting any fraud they may come across.

Mr Phil Robertson, deputy director of the independent, New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "At the top of everybody's mind is the potential for post-election violence."

He added that there were "multiple layers of electoral malfeasance in the pipeline".

There has been little violence so far compared with previous elections, although the CNRP on Saturday showed journalists a mobile phone video clip of party supporters being stoned by CPP supporters in a district of Phnom Penh earlier last week.

Asked whether he would accept an election loss, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, 64, said: "How we will react depends on the amount of vote-stealing."

Speaking to reporters at a packed press conference on Saturday, he added: "We will be collecting information and issuing our own tally of the results."

Separately, reacting to accusations that he was fanning anti-Vietnamese sentiment to grab more ethnic Khmer votes, Mr Rainsy in an interview at his house after the press conference claimed: "This is government propaganda."

Mr Rainsy himself is barred from standing for election.

But the Cambodia Daily on Saturday quoted an e-mail from an official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, saying that the CNRP's use of racially charged rhetoric to win political points was "capitalising (on) the ethnic issue for political gains" and stoking fear among ethnic Vietnamese, who are Cambodia's largest ethnic minority.

The CPP has 90 seats in the 123-seat national assembly. The CNRP has 29. Analysts, while expecting the CPP to lose some seats, are wary of predicting how many. But none expects the CPP to lose its majority.

There is an unusually expectant atmosphere, following the massive reception given to Mr Rainsy just over a week ago when he returned from self-exile abroad after a royal pardon for a conviction at home.

Up to 100,000 turned up to hear him speak - which he said was "incredible" and gave the party hope of breaking out of the shadow of Mr Hun Sen, who has been prime minister for 28 years.

Spotlight on Hun Sen's youngest son

In his first interview with the foreign media - an exclusive with The Sunday Times - Mr Hun Many (right), dapper in a suit and tie, joked about being in the spotlight because of his "shining head". But the affable 30-year-old was being obviously self-effacing. A first-time National Assembly candidate for the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) in Sunday's general election, he is the youngest son of the longest-reigning elected leader in ASEAN, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Between his stints at universities in Melbourne and New York - where he got a Masters in political science - Mr Hun Many served three years working as his father's assistant. He related to his father on three levels. "I saw him as a son sees a father, which has nothing to do with professionalism. Then as a student to a teacher, and as a citizen to a leader. I think only with that can you make a healthy, educated judgment," he said.

"As a son to a father, there are many questions I can ask, clarifications and so on. As a student and citizen learning from a leader, I think it is healthy. Many have made judgments about him, good, bad and in the middle... It is healthy for me personally it is a process of learning. The sacrifices he has made, how Cambodia has developed under his leadership, of course it is not 100 per cent, as everyone says.

"As a student and as a citizen, and as a son, I have different judgments about him."

On the future, he said job creation was a key challenge, and stability was essential - a point CPP candidates have been harping on, with Mr Hun Sen himself warning of chaos and instability should the party lose the election. Mr Hun Many said: "We must not create an environment where we lose foreign investors. Who would want to come to Cambodia if there is no stability?''

On what made him decide to get into politics, he said: "There is a clear democratic process of how to discuss and prepare our leadership within the CPP. I did not decide.

"You have so many young candidates. In the past few months, they have been highlighting me, maybe because I have less hair so I seem more shiny. But it's not only me. After the election, you will see there will be many more newcomers. It's a normal process."

He said that to prepare the next generation, "you have to be able to be educated as to what is the reality and how to serve the people".

Citing clamour for change in Singapore, Malaysia and the United States, Mr Hun Many said changes in Cambodia were not unusual. "You can't imagine a society where there are no new demands, expectations or aspirations," he said. "We embrace it; it is a good sign of how far we have come."


Nirmal Ghosh

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