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PSPD  l  People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2002.08.24
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The day after I arrived in Phnom Penh, January 28, 2002, there was a press conference held by the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). It was to report the observation results made by their long-term observers, who have been deployed in nine major critical cities in Cambodia since December 2001, and to announce the beginning of the activities of their short-term observers. The National Election Committee of Cambodia and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), an election monitoring NGO, had officially invited ANFREL, based on Bangkok, Thailand, to be part of the international observers for Cambodia’s first commune election, held on February 3, 2002. After the press conference ANFREL conducted orientation and education for both long-term and short-term observers.

On January 30, ANFREL deployed 65 international observers to all 24 districts. My partner and I were deployed to Banteay Meanchey (BMC) District, northwest of Phnom Penh, where Cambodia meets with Thailand. We made the 45-minute flight to Battambang and then moved to Sisophon by car, which took another two hours. There we met local COMFREL staff and a translator. We started our mission by visiting the BMC Provincial Election Committee together.

The PEC gave us a rough picture of the province. BMC has eight provinces and is divided into 64 communes. The number of eligible voters of this district was 326,542 out of a total population of 645,118. Registered voters were 251,234 (76.62%), which was much lower than the national average of 84.04%. The registration rate was lower than that of 1998, mainly because many had moved to Phnom Penh or Thailand for jobs. This area is extremely poor, the soil is very dry, and the border areas we visited were recently cleared mine zones. In this district, 3,542 candidates (male - 2,965, female - 577) were competing against each other for 504 seats.

For two days, before the election, our team traveled in five provinces and visited six Commune Election Committees, local COMFREL activists, and candidates to hear how the preparation for the election had been since the registration in July 2001 and about their opinions concerning the election.

The next day we arrived in Sisophon, we met with two international long-term observers from the EU to share our experiences and to decide who would go to which province on the election day. Long-term observers from the EU, UN, NDI, and IRI were covering areas such as Sisophon and Poipet. Therefore our team decided to go to Phnom Srok Province, in the northwestern part of the district, and Mongkol Borey Province, on the way back to Battambang.

On election day we visited 17 polling stations in those two provinces. In Phnom Srok, polling stations were large and were located for people who live in a vast area, so that most of them had to walk for up to three hours to their polling station. We observed the events from the preparations for the opening of the polling station, to the opening, voting, closing, and counting. The election day itself was peaceful and even festive in some areas. Polling started at seven o’clock in the morning, and most of the registered voters cast their ballot before nine o’clock. Everyone was dressed-up with their nicest clothes. Their attentiveness showed us their will to bring changes in Cambodia. The counting of the ballot right at the spot gave strong confidentiality.

All the present commune leaders were from the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). For us, it was surprising to see that the Sam Rainsy Party won a much larger number than expected, whereas FUNCINPEC seemed to have been losing their credibility over the years. Later when we came back to Phnom Penh, we learned that a significant number of Cambodian people support Sam Rainsy.

My partner and I went back to Phnom Penh on February 4, as ANFREL’s observers gathered to debrief each other about their activities from each district. Hours and hours of sharing the experiences of each observer became the basis for the next day’s press conference. On February 5, COMFREL and ANFREL had their separate press conferences. They announced that this commune election has shown with no doubt a considerable progress in the development of democracy in Cambodia. However, they also made clear their dissatisfaction because of the presence of violent threats (20 candidates and political activists were killed in the 12 months before the election) and corruption during candidates’ campaigns. After the final result of the election came out, ANFREL, in its statement dated February 20, 2002, concluded the activities of the international observers and made suggestions. Here are the five points of their statement:

1. Violence, intimidation and killing as well as corrupt campaign practices continue to be a significant feature of Cambodian elections.

2. The Election Committees at all levels and the law enforcement agencies have not done enough to uphold election laws by prosecuting those responsible for violence, intimidation, and other electoral abuses.

3. Abuse of the monopoly of power at all levels and the weakness of legal codes to prevent the ruling party from using this to influence voter choice.

4. The international standards for free and fair elections related to the equal access of parties and candidates to the media have not been met. The media have also failed to fulfill their mission in informing the Cambodian population about the elections.

5. Technical irregularities, though generally inconsequential, provide the opportunity for cheating and electoral abuses.

And ANFREL’s recommendations:

1. Violence and intimidation must be eliminated from the Cambodian political landscape.

2. The integrity of the electoral process requires administration by an impartial Election Committees. Actions must be taken to ensure that elections in Cambodia are administered by a neutral body.

3. There is a need to review and strengthen election laws and related regulations.

4. The technical capacity of the Election Committees and polling station officials must be raised in time for the next national elections.

5. NGOs as independent mechanisms playing an active role in promoting a free and fair electoral environment are necessary.

6. More concerted efforts to implement civic/voter education programs are needed.

(For the full text of ANFREL’s final statement, please visit:

http://www.forumasia.org/anfrel/news/020220finalcambodia.html)

Following the dissolution of short-term observers, the second General Assembly of ANFREL was held in Phnom Penh. Seventeen member organizations, out of 24 organizations, participated from nine countries. The main agenda items were to review the activities and the financial report of the last four years and to approve projects and the budget for the coming three years. A constitution was drafted, and seven executive committee members from four regions were selected at this General Assembly.

Attending the General Assembly as a representative of the PSPD was my last official duty in Cambodia. After I left Cambodia, my brain kept replaying my short sojourn there. Before I left Seoul, I had no idea of what a “GNP of $300” could mean. After traveling to the poorest areas in Cambodia, I realized that money/or numbers in our terms could not describe their life. In those remote countrysides, I encountered the happiest smiles on earth. On the faces of those who have experienced the cruelest history! Those smiles opened my eyes in a completely unexpected way.

I also remember the day before my partner and I left for Banteay Meanchey District. We had visited the COMFREL office in Phnom Penh. After talking with the executive director, Mr. Koul Panha, about their activities, the recent atmosphere from a local activist’s point of view, and his and our expectations, we were able to look around the office building. On one of COMPREL’s election educational posters, it says:

“Vote according to your will, and you will be free from poverty!”

This slogan is lingering in my ears long after leaving Cambodia.

* ANFREL is planning to send election observers for Pakistan and Nepal in September-November 2002.

Park Yeara (Committee for International Solidarity, PSPD)
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