Cambodia’s government announced about 220 observers from 52 countries will oversee elections set to take place on Sunday as the beleaguered opposition urged voters to boycott.
“They all have experience in monitoring elections in various countries,” Kem Reat Viseth, head of the government commission coordinating election monitors, told a news briefing on Tuesday. “They will speak the truth from what they see.”
However, some of the organisations have been criticised by analysts as being “fake election observation groups”.
“The Cambodian government is attempting to use these ‘shadow’ observation groups as a substitute for the withdrawal of professional observation groups, such as the European Union,” Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on elections held by authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia.
“This is a sign of how the election utterly lacks credibility.”
The criticism was dismissed by a government spokesperson who said the “foreign monitors are good friends who come to observe the elections”.
“They evaluate and they don’t have political motives, as raised by this professor,” the spokesperson added.
Tuesday’s announcement of the monitors’ deployment comes days after opposition parties accused the government of silencing voices critical of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Members of the opposition called on Cambodians not to vote to show their anger over the lack of challengers to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than 30 years.
The Clean Finger boycott campaign – spearheaded by exiled members of the opposition – refers to the indelible ink used to stain voters’ fingers to prevent them from casting more than one ballot.
Authorities say calls to boycott the election are illegal, but rights groups argue the calls do not violate the law.
The largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved in November after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
It performed well in the last general and in local elections, but candidates lost their seats when the party was banned. Hun Sen’s CPP narrowly defeated CNRP in the 2013 vote.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha was also jailed and charged with treason.
Following the dissolution of CNRP, Hun Sen is virtually running unopposed in Sunday’s election.
The government says it does not jail critics.
“We have never banned criticisms but we ban insults and incitements because, in an election situation, people need security physically and mentally,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said earlier this week.
The silencing of political opposition has been condemned internationally with 45 countries signing a letter calling for challengers to be reinstated and for Kim Sokha to be freed.
The United States and the European Union have also withdrawn funding for the election.
The government said it is not concerned about the criticism, and will not intervene in the judicial process.
Several independent media outlets have been shut down in Cambodia during the past year.
In September, independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily announced it was closing its doors after being slapped with a $6.3m tax bill, which its publishers said was politically motivated.
The closure came weeks after a government crackdown on 32 radio stations, including Radio Free Asia’s Phnom Penh bureau, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
RSF accused Hun Sen’s government of leading “an all-out war on independent media outlets with the aim of ensuring victory in the general elections”.