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.")