Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

UN Calls Cambodian Election “Distorted,” Hun Sen Downplays International Criticism

A monk votes at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 23, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
A monk votes at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 23, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Cambodia’s electoral process was “distorted” due to the ban on the Candlelight Party and ruling elites harassing opponents, UN experts said in a statement released Wednesday. 

“The lead up to recent national elections in Cambodia and its results are extremely disconcerting,” the statement read. “Thirty years since peace was assured by the Paris Peace Agreements, a major obstacle remains the failure to ensure and protect human rights and the systemic undermining of democratic principles.”

The post-election UN statement follows criticism of the election from the US, France, the UK, the EU, Germany, Japan and Australia.

Prime Minister Hun Sen downplayed the extent of the international criticism in a speech at an inauguration ceremony today at Phnom Penh’s Third Ring Road. 

“Don’t present one or two countries as the international community, that is not correct,” he said. “The majority, about 60 nationalities [of election observers] came to Cambodia. [They] have announced the election was legitimate.” 

CamboJA reported on election day that some international observers were representing Cambodian government-affiliated institutions. Others were there with groups linked to the controversial Unification Church, also known as the Moonies, which has held mass weddings of thousands of couples matched by the church who shared no common language.

The governments of Japan, Australia, the U.S. and France said they would not send election observers, while private citizens of those countries may have served as observers. 

Two of Cambodia’s leading human rights organizations, Adhoc and Licadho, said they did not have plans to meet with any international observers. Licadho even “refused to meet” with election observers sent by the International Organization of la Francophonie.

Hun Sen also said during his public remarks today that the recent contest was “a genuine election” due to the high voter turnout.

“They [the international community] had thought it [the election] was not democratic, related to one or two parties that failed to join the election. You are wrong. Whether we are a democracy or not a democracy depends on people going to vote,” he said. “Finally, I can declare that democracy in Cambodia has won.”

Voter turnout on election day was nearly 85%, up from around 83% in 2018, according to the National Election Committee’s (NEC) preliminary election results announced this week.  

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a sweeping victory with around 78% of votes, while Funcinpec Party received about 9% and the Khmer National United Party received less than 2% of votes.

“There was a high voter turnout, but the opposition party [Candlelight] was still limited  as it could not join [the election] for voters who wanted to show their will,” said Sam Kuntheamy, executive director for the election watchdog Nicfec. 

He pointed out that despite the high percentage of voter turnout, some voters weren’t satisfied that their preferred party, the Candlelight party, couldn’t participate in the election.

“The absence of any political party [in the election] is their party’s issue for not fulfilling the conditions required by the law,” said NEC Spokesperson Hang Puthea.

In his speech, Hun Sen warned that he would dissolve a political party, without saying a specific party name, that allegedly ordered its members to spoil ballots through a Telegram group called “Sabai.” At least two Candlelight supporters linked to the Telegram group have apologized for encouraging people to spoil their ballots. 

“One political party should be aware of what its members have been doing,” he said. “Some have confessed, and we forgave them, and some have been fined by the NEC and banned from doing politics.”

Candlelight Party spokesperson Kimsour Phearith denied that his party was linked to the Telegram group.

“Our Candlelight Party has never ordered someone to do this [spoil ballots] and I do not know which party Samdech [Hun Sen] was referring to,” he said. “We are not afraid because we have done nothing wrong. If they want to frame us, we do not know what to do.” 

The Candlelight Party issued a statement today saying that the Interior Ministry refused the party’s request, made Wednesday, to meet with Minister Sar Kheng to discuss the party’s original registration document from 1998. 

This missing original document was the NEC’s stated reason for disqualifying the party from the 2023 election. The party claimed that the document was lost following a raid at the CNRP headquarters in 2017.

Candlelight’s statement said the Interior Ministry told the party to wait until after the new government has formed to make this request. 

Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak told CamboJA the ministry had already issued a letter to Candlelight recognizing the party as legally registered, “so there is no need to meet.” 

National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun could not be reached for comment. 

Additional reporting by Hel Komsan