The Inbox

RM awardee from Cambodia pays tribute to Philippine NGOs

2011 Ramon Magsaysay awardee Koul Panha. Photo sourced from Comfrel.

By Yvonne T. Chua, VERA Files

The 28-year-old human rights advocate listened with rapt attention as the guest from Manila described to his audience in Cambodia how a nongovernmental organization called the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections had been monitoring Philippine elections and trying to keep them as clean and as honest as possible since the Marcos dictatorship.

"What made Namfrel powerful?" he wondered aloud.

It was October of 1995, and Koul Panha could barely speak English at the time. He asked the interpreter to relay his question to the guest, Namfrel's Damaso Magbual.

Both question and answer were lost in translation, Koul now recalls with a laugh.

But that hardly mattered. Koul began devouring all the literature he could find about Namfrel. In 1997, as Cambodia was gearing up for the National Assembly elections to be held the following year, Koul and his colleagues from civil society formed the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. Comfrel for short, he said, to make it sound like "Namfrel" in their bid to establish a connection to the Philippine group.

For Comfrel, Namfrel was not just a model, but the "best model," said Koul, who was named this year's Ramon Magsaysay awardee for "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."

In a forum held on Friday morning, the unassuming Koul, who turned 44 that day, paid tribute to two Philippine organizations that inspired his work: Namfrel and Task Force Detainees.

"TFD gave us a simple concept of human rights which we combined with Cambodian culture to help people understand the idea of human rights," he said.

Before his foray into election watchdogging, Koul, an engineer by profession, was already deeply involved in human rights issues and cofounded the Cambodian Human Rights Development Association in 1991.

He got caught up in Cambodia's national elections in 1993, when he joined the nonpartisan Task Force on Cambodian Elections, the forerunner of Comfrel, and served as team leader of a voter registration station. The 1993 polls were the first ever held since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which ended decades of civil war and foreign occupation in Cambodia, were signed. They were supervised by United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.

For the 1998 national elections, Comfrel, already under Koul's leadership, copied what Namfrel had been doing. It fielded more than 10,000 observers in about 95 percent of Cambodia's polling stations and undertook a "parallel quick count" alongside the official count of the National Election Committee.

But it has since moved into areas where its model and mentor, Namfrel, has not.

Every year since 2003, Comfrel, under its project "Parliamentary Watch," releases a report sizing up the performance of Cambodian legislators and other elective officials at both the national and local levels. In 2008, it launched a voter scorecard project, through which voters rate the powers-that-be by their 43-point platform of government.

The post-election programs are among Comfrel's strategies to prevent disillusionment from setting in among voters which it fears would discourage them from casting the ballot in the next elections. After all, Cambodia remains a poor nation still recovering from the deep scars of war, civil strife and dictatorship, and learning to make a go of their fragile democracy.

Koul said voters in Cambodia are well aware that politicians pay attention to them only during elections—held every five years—and become inaccessible after being voted to office. Those who remember elections of old liked to say, "After elections, they (the politicians) would close their door and put out the dog."

The challenge for Koul and Comfrel was to show voters that they "own the vote" even after the nine-month election period and they should hold to account and, more important, benefit from the government they put in place. "We need to strengthen the meaningfulness of elections," he said.

Comfrel's work has borne fruit. Parliamentary Watch, for example, has forced a growing number of public officials to get out of their office, especially those in the capital Phnom Penh, and report to their constituents. In the absence of a law, several provinces and communes have adopted internal procedures that allow citizens to observe council meetings. Some government officials now send performance reports to Comfrel, which the poll watchdog promptly verifies before including these in its annual report.

Not everyone is pleased, though. Unflattering reports have courted the ire of politicians, including strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party.

Koul is the first to acknowledge that great risks accompany the work Comfrel does, and he is no stranger to risks.

He was only 8 when his father, a clerk of Cambodia's Supreme Court, was liquidated by Khmer Rouge soldiers. He and the rest of his family stood in danger of being killed as well in this regime of genocide. "If you kill one, you kill all," he said.

In the village where they had sought refuge, Koul and his kin "learned to manage risks"; they painstakingly showed how they were a benefit to the community till it was the villagers themselves who came to their protection.

Difficult it must have been, but Koul learned to "keep smiling and be patient" during those perilous times. This he continues to do at Comfrel. "I try to ignore the fear in an environment of threat and harassment," he said.

But Koul also picked up a far more valuable lesson while growing up. He had spent long hours reading tons of books in the public library, and learned that "democracy was an answer to tyranny."

In his pursuit of lasting democracy and good governance for Cambodia, Koul has steered Comfrel in directions that even Namfrel has not ventured into. The tables have turned. "It's time for the teacher to learn from the student," said Namfrel Council member Vicente Paterno.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

  • Happy Earth Day! The 8 Biggest Mysteries of Our Planet
    Happy Earth Day! The 8 Biggest Mysteries of Our Planet

    When the first Earth Day was held in 1970, geologists were still putting the finishing touches on plate tectonics, the model that explains how the Earth's surface takes shape. For today's Earth day, here are some of Earth's biggest unsolved mysteries. Scientists think Earth was a dry rock after it coalesced 4.5 billion years ago. But the beginnings of Earth's water are shrouded in mystery because so little rock evidence remains from this time period. …

  • Angel calls birthday boy Luis ‘amazing’
    Angel calls birthday boy Luis ‘amazing’

    [caption id="attachment_130927" align="alignright" width="300"] Angel Locsin and Luis Manzano (Instagram)[/caption] Angel Locsin is extra sweet to boyfriend Luis Manzano today, with the latter commemorating his 33rd birthday. The actress authorized Sagip Kapamilya Foundation to auction the 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle, which is her dream car. …

  • Why You Forget: 5 Strange Facts About Memory

    Although rare, certain activities can result in a temporary memory loss and brain fog, called transient global amnesia. For example, sex has been reported to cause this memory problem, with patients forgetting the past day or so, and having difficulty forming new memories. …

  • Miss America defends student suspended for asking her to prom
    Miss America defends student suspended for asking her to prom

    By Chris Francescani NEW YORK (Reuters) - Miss America has suggested officials at a Pennsylvania high school reconsider their decision to suspend a student for approaching her at a school assembly and asking her to be his prom date, the beauty queen said on Saturday. The disciplinary action taken by school administrators in York against the 18-year-old senior made national headlines, and generated sympathy for the young man on social media. A video of Central York High School senior Patrick …

  • U.S. Embassy in Manila denies report of visa-free U.S. entry for Filip …
    U.S. Embassy in Manila denies report of visa-free U.S. entry for Filip …

    Don’t fall for rumors that Filipinos may now visit the United States without a visa, U.S. embassy in Manila told the public Wednesday. …

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • Happy Earth Day! The 8 Biggest Mysteries of Our Planet

    Happy Earth Day! The 8 Biggest Mysteries of Our Planet

    LiveScience.com - Tue, Apr 22, 2014
    Happy Earth Day! The 8 Biggest Mysteries of Our Planet

    When the first Earth Day was held in 1970, geologists were still putting the finishing touches on plate tectonics, the model that explains how the Earth's surface takes shape. For today's Earth day, here are some of Earth's biggest unsolved mysteries. Scientists think Earth was a dry rock after it coalesced 4.5 billion years ago. But the beginnings of Earth's water are shrouded in mystery because so little rock evidence remains from this time period. …

  • Jodie Foster marries girlfriend

    Jodie Foster marries girlfriend

    Cover Media - 13 hours ago
    Jodie Foster marries girlfriend

    Jodie Foster has reportedly tied the knot with Alexandra Hedison, who she has been dating for less than a year. …

  • Pacquiao has lost his 'pop', Mayweather

    Pacquiao has lost his 'pop', Mayweather

    AFP News - 3 hours ago
    Pacquiao has lost his 'pop', Mayweather

    Floyd Mayweather says Manny Pacquiao has lost a step and that the Filipino's superstar slide has coincided with his decision to split from former strength trainer Alex Ariza. The 37-year-old undefeated welterweight champ Mayweather weighed in Wednesday on the latest performance by Pacquiao who beat Timothy Bradley on April 12 in Las Vegas in a rematch of their first bout in June 2012. "Actually, I did watch the fight," said Mayweather who is training to fight Argentina's Marcos Maidana in a …

POLL
Loading...
Poll Choice Options