Pung Chhiv Kek. Image via YouTube

By Joe Buckley

A well-known human rights campaigner has been appointed to Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) – and the impacts could be huge.

Earlier this week, Cambodia’s new government – in which the opposition CNRP appears ready to take its seats, following a year of hostilities, negotiations and violence after the 2013 elections – selected Pung Chhiv Kek to become the ninth member of the NEC.

While in most contexts, a person being selected for an election committee would be a barely newsworthy piece of bureaucracy, the selection of Kek is hugely significant. Simon Springer, an assistant professor and Cambodia expert at the University of Victoria in Canada, says that this is “the best thing that has happened to Cambodian politics since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.” This is because, says Springer, the development means Cambodia will have an unbiased NEC for the first time ever.

The old NEC was regarded with suspicion. The organisation’s motto is ‘Independence, Neutrality, Truthfulness, Justice, and Transparency’, but the reality seemed to be anything but. The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Cambodia’s main opposition, accused the old NEC of bias and affiliation with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – accusations which seem to stand up, and were backed up by international organisations. Human Rights Watch, for example, asserts that the old NEC was not just biased, but completely controlled by the CPP. The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network notes that, despite piecemeal reform of the past two decades, the NEC failed to become independent, neutral, truthful, just, or transparent.

In contrast to the NEC, Pung Chhiv Kek, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, is hugely respected in Cambodia. Originally trained as a medical doctor in France, she first became an important figure in Cambodian politics in 1987 when she organised negotiations between Hun Sen and the then-deposed King Norodom Sihanouk during the post-Khmer Rouge civil war. These negotiations eventually led to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.

In 1992, Kek went on to found the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho)  – the thing she is best known for today. The human rights organisation has built up a respected reputation, dealing with a wide array of issues, including women’s and children’s rights, land grabs, and political prisoners.

Springer outlined why the selection of Kek will make sure that the NEC is neutral. “Kek is such a strong and intelligent woman who quite simply does not pull punches. She takes the CPP to task on all of their human rights abuses, and is never afraid to speak her mind, but at the same time she also doesn’t give the CNRP a free pass on some of the racist and anti-Vietnamese sentiments that have found their way into opposition politics,” he said.

Kek put down a list of conditions before she accepted the role. She demanded that independence of the Committee was ensured, including legal immunity for NEC members, decision-making autonomy, the right of the NEC to choose its own staff, and an independent budget. These conditions have been agreed to by the CNRP, and the CPP has not made a statement disagreeing with them.

The changes that Kek’s selection will bring are, of course, unknown as of yet, and only time will tell. But Springer predicts that it will mean the next election will see a change in government, as the CPP will lose their ability to manipulate election results so significantly. He also argues that “Kek’s selection will simply galvanize the grassroots movement for change even more,” and that “people will become more emboldened to vote for change.”

Normal Cambodians share Springer’s enthusiasm and optimism. In Siem Reap, a man forced to fight for the Khmer Rouge aged 13 was very excited about the selection of Kek. “I was smiling. I was very happy,” he said about hearing the news. The man, who wished to remain anonymous and is now a tour guide and disability campaigner, added that “she will bring peace to Cambodia, stop corruption and make things better for the poor.”

Tu Yim, a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh, was also positive about the news, although not unconditionally. “It’s good, but Cambodia has so much corruption, so many problems, and she can’t solve everything.” He added, however, that he thinks it will mean a change of government after the next election in 2018. “But it’s 2014 now, and we want a new government now. People have been protesting for a year. Everybody is tired.”

It remains to be seen what the selection of Pung Chhiv Kek will really do. The news, however, combined with all the strikes and protests over the past year, does seem to suggest at least one thing – real, structural change is coming to Cambodia.