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Election Body Warns NGOs Against Election Commentary Without Observer Status

Teachers and students participate in a campaign by the National Election Committee, NEC, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. NEC on Wednesday held its campaign with the teachers and students on the disseminate awareness of the law on the orga

It's not clear to what extent such a ruling has a basis in Cambodian law.

The national election body has said civil society groups that make statements concerning the election without formally registering as election observers could face legal action.

In a statement on Friday, Sik Bun Hok, president of the National Election Committee (NEC), said that “associations and non-governmental organizations which did not apply for registration as observers to attend election observation at the NEC cannot act and cannot release the statements that can be interpreted as an evaluation of the election.”

It was not immediately clear to what extent such a ruling has a basis in Cambodian law. The government has touted a large number of election observers -- some 160,000, it reports -- as evidence that it is committed to a free and fair election.

But NEC figures show that at least 10,000 polling stations could be manned only by ruling Cambodian People’s Party observers, while tens of thousands of supposed independent civil society observers are from a pro-CPP youth group, the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many. Numerous independent civil society groups have declined to take part and the United States and European Union have withdrawn funding for the election process.

Hang Puthea, an NEC spokesman, said if organizations did not participate directly but made statements that “affect the election process” they could face legal action.

“The NEC will punish any election observers who are not approved by the NEC. How can they report about the election if they didn’t observe?”

Korn Savang, a monitoring officer at Comfrel, one of the election watchdogs that has declined to act as an election observer over the government’s crackdown on the opposition and civil society, said the group would abide by the NEC’s rules on election reporting, adding that the organization would still report on any human rights violations during the vote, which does not break the rules.

“Commenting on human right violations and abuse or threats is not violating the law. Anyone can report about it,” he said.

Cambodia has scrambled to convince credible international election observers to take part in the process following the diplomatic fallout with the west. Most international observers who will take part in the election are from nondemocratic nations, such as China and Myanmar.