Political campaigns in Cambodia have been characterized by violence since it obtained independence from France in 1953. In 1993, the democratic transition started with national elections arranged by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
During the 1993 elections, in the months before the election, Cambodia was a violent place. Although UNTAC’s presence had improved security, it was then possible to drive the country’s main highways; the tension of the election resulted in political violence and repression.
The State of Cambodia engaged in systematic political repression against opposition political parties. The intimidation including following people, verbal threats, firing weapons near party offices, arresting or otherwise harassing friends or relatives of party activists and, in some cases, murder.
Murder and intimidation were the primary forms of political violence in the 2002 local elections, and assassination was the primary form of violence in the 2003 national elections. Most of these incidents appear to have been perpetrated by soldiers, police, and civilians, respectively. Although the number of incidents has declined, this seems to have been because of a changed political violence strategy that focused on higher-profile targets rather than any measures to reduce political violence.
Since 1999, the Cambodian Development Research Institute ran the Conflict Prevention in Cambodian Elections (COPCEL) project to provide a daily list of election-related issues as reported in the local newspapers, TV, and radio. Reported incidents range from forced removal of party signs to outright intimidation and, in extreme cases, death threats. Incidents such as complaints of alleged vote-buying, bias, threats and violence, have also been reported. Even though the reports are shocking and the methods unacceptable, the current situation is a marked improvement from the characteristic suppression and violence of past elections.
The 2008 election period showed improvement from past elections, with fewer reports of threats, intimidation, fighting and killings. Any fighting that did occur was generally between supporters of the ruling party and the opposition parties. Such violence hampered efforts to create a stable environment in which to hold the polls.
The decrease in violence is not a guarantee of free and fair elections; such “improvements” in many countries in democratization often result from strict political control. In Cambodia’s case, what is noticeable are the recognized efforts of different stakeholders such as political parties, public officials, and civil society to monitor and denounce irregularities and to collaborate to ensure a non-violent election season. Noticeable measures have been taken by government authorities, as demonstrated by the case reported. A party official was fined $1,250 for giving $150 to 20 families in exchange for votes in a rural district. Moreover, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol at bars and restaurants during the weekend of national elections is an apparent attempt to eliminate potential violent activity factors.
In 2013, deadly post-election violence erupted as tens of thousands of Cambodian protesters protested for an independent probe into charges of election fraud, which the opposition said has robbed them of victory in the July 28 polls. The crackdown by the security forces was brutal, that it caused death and several injuries.
A Study of Election Related Political Violence as an Obstacle to Democratic Consolidation in Cambodia, Sem Buthdy, 2005.
Cambodia National Assembly Election Observation Mission, Final Report, ANFREL, 2008.
Véronique Salze-Lozac’h, In Cambodia: Elections & Violence, The Asia Foundation, July 2008, http://asiafoundation.org/in-asia/2008/07/16/in-cambodia-elections-violence/.
Deadly Post-Election Violence in Phnom Penh, Radio Free Asia, September, 2013, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/violence-09152013170126.html.
The UN Sponsored Elections of 1993: Were They “Free and Fair”?, http://www.seasite.niu.edu/khmer/ledgerwood/free_and_fair.htm.