Let’s imagine, for a moment, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the USS Enterprise is caught in some kind of time-warp and thrown back in time to present-day Cambodia. The cast would find themselves in the midst of country-wide preparations for the 2017 local and 2018 national elections — contests which may prove to be the most important in the country’s recent history. In his initial reconnaissance, Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard would learn that the upcoming elections are a heavily-watched follow up to the 2013 elections, which were close, widely-criticized, and resulted in widespread protests and violence across the country. The captain would also discover that he is unable to register to vote in the upcoming polls for two reasons — one obvious, and one a bit more curious:
He is not a Cambodian citizen,
He is bald
Cambodia’s new government ID cards have a rule where the holder must have “unique and identifiable hair” in order for the ID to be valid. This also impacts whether or not the individual is able to register to vote. If you are hairless, you are also de facto voteless. Moving on from our scenario involving the crew of the Starship Enterprise, this poses a very serious problem for Cambodia’s 50,000 monks, who commonly shave both their head and eyebrows. As such, they find themselves unable to access the paperwork required to vote and risk being totally left out of the country’s upcoming 2017/2018 elections.
The question of monks’ involvement in politics has been a hotly contested issue in the recent past. They were disallowed from voting in the 2003 election, but that ban was reversed for the 2008 poll. Many voted in the 2013 elections, as well, but that contest saw their allegiances shift away from the dominant Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). The top brass of the National Monk Congress, Great Supreme Patriarch Bour Kry of the Dhammayuttika sect and Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong of the Mohanikaya sect, each support a ban on monks voting — citing the need for independence from and neutrality in political matters. Each of them is also a supporter of the governing CPP. Those in favour of a ban often cite the example of neighboring Thailand, where monks do not have the right to vote. But others, such as Venerable But Buntenh of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, support the right of monks to vote on the basis of basic human rights; the act of voting and the right to vote are two very different things.
As things stand now in Cambodia, monks are allowed to vote under the constitution. Furthermore, Prime Minister Hun Sen has expressed disinterest in revisiting the issue. As such, the need for hair in a photo is presently interfering with the constitutional right of some 50,000 citizens. When questioned on the issue, National Electoral Commission spokesperson Hang Puthea explained that “it is hard to identify people without eyebrows.”Whether this bureaucratic barrier is fixed before voter registration begins in the Spring is yet to be seen. The future is hard to identify — perhaps because it doesn’t have eyebrows — but as of yet there is nothing to suggest that this problem will be remedied soon.
In the meantime, this politics of hair speaks to broader concerns around voter registration for the upcoming elections. The registration process is set to begin in May 2016 and last two months. Many of the recent reforms brought in by the National Electoral Commission have come under criticism from human rights organizations and foreign electoral observers. Moreover, major bureaucratic and logistical hurdles remain: for example, a pilot program for electronic voter registration was launched in October 2015, but reported serious challenges half-way through due to lack of internet or electricity in rural communities. The need to register at your home address creates a serious barrier for Cambodia’s hundreds of thousands of internal and cross-border migrant workers. And across the country, endemic corruption at the local level remains a burden to any policy implementation.
Venerable But Buntenh has suggested that it will be bad karma for the government to deprive monks of their right to vote. Certainly, disallowing huge swaths of the population from voting via bureaucratic rigmarole will damage the electoral process and weaken the mandate of whichever party forms government. It may also amplify the fallout if election-day results are close; in the context of widely-reported irregularities and fraud, only 290,000 votes separated first and second place in the 2013 results, resulting in widespread protests and government crisis. That election also coincided with a shift by many monks from supporting the CPP to supporting opposition parties. And so while their sudden technical disfranchisement may be simply coincidental, it also seems quite convenient for the incumbent government. But that short term convenience could come with serious consequences in the long term if the upcoming election ends up a repeat of 2013.
Written By: Brady W. Fox
Before attending UBC, where he completed a BA in History and International Relations, Brady spent several years bouncing between Japan and China doing a mix of work and language study. During, and following, his undergrad he spent his summers working in Southeast Asia (Cambodia mainly) with various health and community development-focused NGOs. As such, he has developed a strong interest in the relationships between NGOs, government agencies, and foreign investment in Southeast Asia, and, more broadly, an interest in the changing security order of East Asia. His other interests include workshop facilitation, negotiation, and creating creative spaces.