In many places in the world today, citizens are engaged in a historic struggle to democratize their societies, often under conditions of extreme difficulty and danger. One such place is Cambodia. The country was traumatized by decades of war and the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, which left 1.7 million Cambodians dead. The country took its first step to establishing a “multi-party liberal democracy” when it proclaimed a new constitution and embarked on its first democratic elections in 1993. Cambodians have gone through five national and local elections since then. But democracy’s progress has been slow and turbulent, and elections have been undermined by factionalism, fraud, violence, and the threat of a return to authoritarian rule. Many know that the central challenge is for Cambodians to claim the electoral process as their own, by protecting it as an instrument for building a democracy. One of those who have bravely stepped up to this challenge is a Cambodian engineer named Koul Panha.
Koul knows firsthand what brutalities are possible in the absence of a true democracy. He was eight years old when his father and relatives were killed by the Khmer Rouge. The indescribable trauma impelled him to dedicate himself to changing his society. He finished his university degree, taught in Phnom Penh, and was already involved in the human rights movement even in the time of the dictatorship. When Cambodia embarked on its first free elections in 1993, he joined the non-partisan Task Force on Cambodian Elections, and was one of the organizers when this task force became the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL) in 1997. Koul assumed the role of COMFREL executive director in 1998; returning home after earning a master’s degree in the Politics of Alternative Development, he threw himself full-time into COMFREL’s mission of assuring that Cambodian elections are free and fair.
Under Koul’s leadership, COMFREL has become the country’s leading independent organization on electoral issues. It aggressively campaigns for responsible voting and electoral reforms, using all available media. In protecting the 2008 electoral process, COMFREL and its partners trained and deployed over ten thousand volunteers, covering 60 percent of the country’s polling stations. For the first time in Cambodia, a citizens’ parallel “quick count,” initiated by COMFREL, helped forestall the manipulation of results by establishing voting trends three days after the elections. They have also proactively campaigned for the wider political participation of women, who constitute half of Cambodia’s population, a campaign that has seen a subsequent increase of women in public office.
Based in Phnom Penh, COMFREL maintains a nationwide network of partners and has mobilized, since its inception, over fifty thousand election volunteers; more than 150,000 Cambodians have participated in COMFREL’s training programs, workshops and other activities. This is an impressive show of civic participation in a democracy still so young. Even more significant is how COMFREL has gone beyond elections—into post-election issues of governance. It actively lobbies for reforms in matters like election campaign finance and the national budget. In 2003 it initiated Parliamentary Watch, which monitors the performance of legislators and officials using benchmarks and concrete indicators in grading government performance at both local and national levels. COMFREL’s monitoring reports are publicly disseminated.
Democracy in Cambodia remains fragile, and the situation complex and dangerous. Koul has experienced harassment, and he knows he has to walk a tightrope for COMFREL to continue doing its work. But despite the legitimate fears of friends and family, he remains committed to using every inch of democratic space to empower his people in building a homeland that is democratic and free. Recalling the tragic experience of millions of Cambodians and his own family, the soft-spoken Koul says: “I think Cambodia has suffered enough. This pushes me to do something as a citizen of Cambodia, to make sure the suffering does not happen again.”
In electing Koul Panha to receive the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his determined and courageous leadership of the sustained campaign to build an enlightened, organized and vigilant citizenry who will ensure fair and free elections—as well as demand accountable governance by their elected officials—in Cambodia’s nascent democracy.
First of all, I would like to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for granting me such a prestigious award. I am very much honored for myself, my family and my country Cambodia.
Before the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established, along with other former prisoners of conscience I initiated the first human rights movement to prevent Cambodia’s return to civil war, the genocide, the brutality of human rights abuses, oppression and disasters.
After UNTAC finished its mission, I, along with other leaders of civil society organizations realized that as Cambodian citizens we have the responsibility and obligation to continue to promote democracy and citizen participation. We set up two mission goals. Our first core mission goal was to help create an informed and favorable climate for free and fair elections. The second mission goal was to strengthen the meaningfulness of post-election periods by encouraging citizens to participate in democratic governance and decision making. This is in order to implement reforms and increase the accountability of elected officials.
We believe that a fragile democracy like Cambodia is not just about elections; it is about the sustained work to aggressively campaign for free, fair and meaningful elections, which are necessary in order to promote democracy. This is why we have devoted great efforts to strengthen citizen participation in genuine democratic elections.
Although these mission goals have been partly implemented and fulfilled, Cambodia currently is facing challenges, limiting the democratic space that allows citizens to freely express and engage in democracy and human rights activities. For me personally, this is a frustrating situation.
This award is a new source of energy that gives me strength to work harder and to reinforce the courageousness of the organizations that I work for and engage with.
On this very special occasion, I would like to thank my family, friends and the organizations that I work for and engage with, as well as donor organizations. They have given me enormous support, trust and encouragement. I would also like to express my appreciation for colleagues, stakeholders, and the leaders of national and regional organizations, including the Asian Network For Free Election (ANFREL), for their collaboration and strong solidarity with us, that strengthens our work for the democratic cause in Cambodia and Asia.
I would like to acknowledge in a special way the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, or COMFREL. I owe this achievement to the COMFREL staff, board members, our huge network of activists and volunteers. In particular I am grateful to our member-organizations including the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), who work unceasingly so that we might attain the goal of a truly free, democratic society in Cambodia.
Thank you and MABUHAY.