By Riri Rafiani, PPUA Penca

Following the monitoring of the commune election in Cambodia, volunteers and AGENDA team gathered on June 4 to review the outcome. Overall, the election was found to have gone in a peaceful and orderly fashion. Nevertheless, the Cambodians still have a lot to do when it comes to accessibility.

Many monitored polling stations in five provinces failed to provide adequate access. The buildings used for the venue were usually public facilities such as schools or community centers, mostly with staircases but no ramps, and situated in the middle of grassy, muddy field. This condition was not very encouraging especially for voters with mobility impairment.

The findings also indicated that persons with disabilities were often overlooked at the voter registration stage and therefore lost their right to vote. It was reported that Pen Hor, who was blind, had claimed she had never voted in her entire life, because her name was never listed in the voter registry. In another case, Suor Kroch, who had celebral palsy had not been registered simply because the poll workers had assumed that he was “intellectually incapable” of voting, despite the fact that he was the head of the local Disabled Persons Organization. These cases showed that people still perceive persons with disabilities to be intellectually challenged.

Sensitivity of the poll workers was found to be low in general. They failed to give the necessary assistance for voters with disability. Keo Sophany who monitored in Kampot Province reported one such case, saying that, “There was one voter who had trouble reaching the polling station, but none of [the poll workers] care about it. We [observers] had to come and ask them to help her. Only then they gave a hand.”

However, there were indications that the election committee had made efforts to assist voters who are blind. In one polling station in Kampong Cham, an assistive device had been provided. Unfortunately, this did not seem to be very effective because hardly any person with disabilities used the device. Ier Eam Sim who monitored in Takeo Province reported: “Blind voters did not use [the assistive device] because, first, the poll workers did not provide any explanation about it, and second, the design is not suitable for them.” The device only provided several holes to correspond to the number of competing parties without any tactile information to help voters learn about each party before casting their votes. Another factor that contributes to the ineffectiveness was the uneven distribution of the assistive devices. NICFEC Program Manager Darith who monitored in Kampong Cham Province reported that one polling station did not provide the device because there was only one blind voter in the area. Apparently, the number of blind voters was a deciding factor in the distribution.

The meeting, which were held at Khmer Surin Restaurant, also acknowledged certain flaws in the monitoring process. Saroen from NICFEC noted that several observers did not completely understand the rules of election. He said, “There was a case where a voter came with insufficient documentation, and yet they were allowed to vote. And this incident was overlooked by the observers; they didn’t put it on the notes as peculiarities.”

Darith also raised his concern about the skills of the observers. “Some observers did not fully understand how to use the checklist and the ethics [of election monitoring]. Observers should not have gone inside the polling booth. Also, some observers had left when the polling station had gone quiet. They should have stayed until every voter with disabilities had come to vote.”

Nonetheless, the team agreed the faults were tolerable given that the commune election was the first time for all parties involved to take part in monitoring election accessibility. “This is the first time persons with disabilities are invited to join the election monitoring. Previously we limit our observation to the procedure, the system, and so on. It is only today that we focused on accessibility aspects. But I am very proud that we all understand why we are here today,” said Cambodian Disabled People Organisastion Officer Khy Huy. He went on to underline the importance of this initiative. “CDPO will bring the result [of the monitoring] to NEC in July. This is a small matter, but it is very important because the NEC will hear our voice. We can finally make a better and more concrete advocacy [of disability issues] to them. I know it is a small step, but we have to do it one step at a time.”

PPCI Program Manager Yusdiana shared the same opinion. “I believe this is just the start for the election education system in Cambodia. In addition, you can have a good public campaign, to include your family member to vote and register as voters,” she said.

In conclusion, Darith invited everyone to become actively involved in accessibility issues. “We want to appeal to you and we want you to appeal to persons with disabilities to use their rights. I hope in the future persons with disabilities will have better knowledge about the election as well as in other fields.”