Ry Sovanna is a Cambodian citizen, but in 2013 he was not able to exercise one of his most basic rights – voting. Mr. Sovanna was living in Thailand at the time, and there was no way for him to file his ballot in the Cambodian elections. As a scholarship student in Bangkok with a heavy course load, he couldn’t make the trip back home to cast his vote. “I did not have a chance to vote…because based on Cambodia’s law there is no voting abroad,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary citizen. I just want to vote.” Mr. Sovanna, who has since returned to Phnom Penh, was just one of roughly one million Cambodians who live outside the country. Unless they come back to Cambodia during the election, under current laws these citizens do not have any way to participate in elections. There are no polling stations abroad, and there is no way to file votes by mail.
The government has given several reasons for the lack of an absentee voting system for voters who live abroad. National Election Committee officials say that it would be expensive to register voters and set up polling stations, and argue that there is also a large risk of voter fraud. But some analysts say that the decision not to introduce voting abroad is politically motivated.
Cambodians living outside the country are still citizens under the Constitution, but unlike citizens inside Cambodia they are not able to vote. Koul Panha, the director of rights group Comfrel, said this system is unjust, given the large number of Cambodians living abroad and their importance to Khmer society and economy.
“If one million voters are ignored, that’s 10 percent of eligible voters. It’s a huge number,” said Mr. Panha. “They are the ones who contribute a lot to the Cambodian economy. So they naturally want to influence Cambodian politics and policy.”