The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has appealed to the international community to refrain from sending observers to Cambodia’s national elections in July so as not to lend legitimacy to the poll.
The call comes as foreign governments and international organizations already appear reticent to send observers to monitor the vote.
In a statement sent to media on Sunday, Mr. Rainsy, who resides in self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid convictions handed down by Cambodian courts, said the forthcoming elections will not be legitimate.
“Their organization by the National Election Committee (NEC), controlled by the authoritarian Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power for 34 years, runs fundamentally counter to international standards,” Mr. Rainsy said in the statement, in which he complained of manipulation of voter lists, and a “totalitarian drift” in Cambodia.
Mr. Rainsy faces 11 years in jail on charges including defamation and damage to public property, though his supporters say the charges were politically motivated. Though he is leader of the country’s political opposition, Mr. Rainsy’s name has been removed from the electoral register by the NEC under a little-enforced rule barring people with criminal convictions from voting.
“I am therefore excluded from the electoral contest, which will allow the outgoing CPP prime minister to retain his post without being challenged,” he said in the statement.
Mr. Rainsy said that since recommendations on the electoral system from U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi had not been heeded by the government, “international organizations, friendly countries and non-complacent non-government organizations are asked not to send electoral observers.”
“There is no point going to watch a game that has been fixed in advance. Some ill-informed observers just risk validating the charade, which represents an injustice to the Cambodian people, whose will is being distorted,” Mr. Rainsy wrote.
European Union Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain met with Prime Minister Hun Sen last week and discussed the elections, but did not indicate whether the European Union (E.U.) would be sending monitors to observe July’s election, but the E.U. said it would not send election observers.
“The EU will not send observers to the legislative elections first of all because we have not been asked to do so by the Cambodian authorities,” Alain Vandersmissen, charge d’affairs of the E.U.’s mission in Cambodia, wrote a text message, adding that the E.U. was planning to provide technical assistance to the NEC.
A team of E.U. observers in 2008 concluded that the national elections that year had “fallen short of a number of key international standards for democratic elections,” and made a series of recommendations addressing the unfair media environment, the activities of party-aligned village chiefs, and the NEC’s lack of independence.
Kuol Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the E.U. was unhappy over a failure to take up the recommendations from 2008.
“They put a lot of efforts, resources, money and technical support, and they provided a lot of recommendations to the NEC and, so far, they haven’t included [the recommendations],” Mr. Panha said, adding that the E.U. was unlikely to participate in Cambodian election monitoring just to “make those same recommendations again.”
None of Cambodia’s major donor countries have yet said that they will send monitors for the elections, scheduled for July 28.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said he did not know yet whether or not the E.U. would be sending observers, but pointed out that the regional group was sending two experts to advise the NEC in the run-up to the elections.
Mr. Nytha said it was too early to say if any international monitors would be present.
“We are appealing to the international NGOs to join,” he said. “The Indonesian Embassy has registered [to monitor] the coming election.”
Laura Thornton, resident director of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, said there was a “disengagement” from international parties that have previously sent monitors to Cambodian elections.
“International observers are bowing out,” she said. “They might be thinking about how effective observers are, whether the election time itself is when problems occur, we could speculate,” she said.
“Certainly, international observers can serve as a deterrent [to abuses], and offer an outside perspective…but they can also legitimize a situation.”
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