Marred by a traumatic event in his childhood, 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Koul Panha does not take democracy and freedom for granted.  Panha has since dedicated his life fighting for freedom in his beloved Cambodia.  His chosen arsenal?  Not guns but a free electoral system.

Koul Panha learned the value of democracy the hard way. When he was seven years old, he remembers hiding in a trench with his family when they heard rumors that Phnom Penh City, the capital of Cambodia, would be bombed by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge occupied the city in the same year and forced Panha’s family to leave their house and all their belongings behind.

The next year, the Khmer Rouge took his father, a clerk at Cambodia’s Supreme Court. The eight year old Panha never saw his father again and was told several days later that he had been killed. In Panha’s words, “ The senior villagers told me that my father did not let the Khmer Rouge guards and soldiers kill him easily as he fought back.”

2011 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Koul Panha
2011 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Koul Panha

Since then, Panha has been fighting back as well. Not in the way his father did but in the way he has dedicated his life to promoting democracy in Cambodia and building a free electoral system as one of its pillars. If Cambodia were a stable, democratic county, Panha believes that the brutalities and human rights abuses he and his fellow Cambodians suffered from would never have taken place. The Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot and which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, causing the death of two million people or almost a fourth of its population, would never have come to power.

“Cambodia’s democracy can be referred to as a young democracy,” Panha explains. “This democracy began recently, a short period after the genocide, post-conflicts, human rights abuses, and oppression.” And right from the start, Panha was there to support it.

Two years after he graduated with a BS Chemical Industry Engineering degree in Phnom Penh, he joined the non-partisan “Task Force on Cambodian Elections” when Cambodia proclaimed a new constitution and embarked on its first democratic elections in 1993. It was Cambodia’s first step in establishing a “multi-party liberal democracy.”

COMFREL members during Cambodia's election
COMFREL members during Cambodia’s election

The Task Force on Cambodian Elections eventually became the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) in 1997. A year later, Panha ecame its executive director. After earning his master’s degree in Politics of Alternative Development at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, Panha committed himself fulltime to COMFREL’s mission in 1999. COMFREL is dedicated to enhancing all phases of free and fair election preparation for democratic and genuine elections within Cambodia.

Panha stresses this in his foreword to the 2010 COMFREL annual narrative report, “ Free and fair elections are entirely necessary for the progress of democratic development in the country.”
Since its first democratic elections in 1993, Cambodia has gone through five national and local elections. These elections have been marred by fraud, violence, and factionalism. But the experiences have only served to strengthen Panha’s commitment to his cause. He says, “ In a fragile democracy like Cambodia . . . sustained work to aggressively campaign and advocate free, fair and meaningful elections is necessary in order to promote democracy.” In staying true to his commitment, Panha has experienced intimidation and harassment but he has never wavered.

Koul Panha speaking with other leaders
Koul Panha speaking with other leaders

Under his leadership, COMFREL has become Cambodia’s leading independent organization on electoral issues. Through the years, it has responded to what was needed. It began by lobbying for the restoration of political stability and government commitment to violence-free polls. In 2000 it took its electoral activities to the grassroots and called for gender equality in electoral representation since women constitute 52 percent of the population.

By 2003, COMFREL had gone beyond elections to post-election issues of governance. In 2003, it initiated “Parliamentary Watch” which monitors the performance of legislators in and outside the parliament. While it lobbies for political reforms, it also draws up benchmarks that identify priority concerns and concrete indicators in grading government performance at local and national levels.

In the 2008 elections, more than 10,000 of COMFREL’s supporters were deployed to cover 60 percent of the electoral precincts. It initiated a citizens’ parallel ‘quick count” that gave out voting trends three days after elections in order to avoid manipulation of election results.

By 2010, COMFREL had seven programs in support of its work on “Strengthening Citizen’s Participation in Decision Making and Democratic Governance.” These are implemented at the national, provincial, and local grassroots levels. Clearly, Panha’s childhood experiences are etched indelibly in his mind and are guiding him continuously to make democracy work so no other Cambodian would suffer what he went through. As he explains, “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.”
COMFREL’s first program is on advocacy and legal study. It tries to influence Cambodian leaders to improve draft laws or policies; it estimates that 20 percent of its recommendations on the penal code, the anti-corruption law, the national budget, the freedom of assembly, and the election system have been accepted. Its second program uses media and information campaigns to empower civil society and voters. The third builds capacity for local networks and citizen’s participation in local governance.

For this program, leaders of civil society organizations are urged to participate in discussions on major issues such as human rights, anti-corruption, resource revenue transparency, and the national budget. The fourth program is on monitoring and voter voice/forum. Government watch, parliamentary watch, voter benchmark workshops, and forums on “Samleng Mchas Chnaut” (Owner of Voting Power) contribute to the increase in accountability of elected officials’ performance and fulfilment of their electoral platform promises in response to the needs of voters in each constituency.

Koul Panha receiving the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Award
Koul Panha receiving the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Award

For its fifth program on civic education and gender, COMFREL publishes educational materials and holds radio programs on women’s political participation. With its battle cry of “Women Can Do It,” COMFREL trains women network activists and integrates gender equality into district programs. Building staff capacity and sensitivity on gender, youth, and HIV-AIDS comprises the sixth program. Finally, the seventh program is a special project on “Evictee Voter Registraion in 2009, including Those with HIV AIDS and Re-audit of Voters not Registered on 2008 Voter List.”

Since it began, COMFREL has mobilized over 150,000 participants to join its activities, training sessions, and conferences. It now has a nationwide network of partners and more than 50,000 election volunteers. Its partnerships extend beyond the boundaries of Cambodia and include external organizations such as Oxfam, Novib, Forum Syd, Norwegian People’s Aid, Trocair, One World Action, European Union, UNDEF, and UNDP.

For Panha, democracy has a human face. He understands why it is needed if people are to live with dignity and respect. This keen understanding has benefited his countrymen and will continue to do so.