The ERA, Comfrel and the indelible ink saga

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 4 February 2014.]

Among the many problems with the report of the Electoral Reform Association, presented publicly with considerable fanfare in early December, are the authors’ careless attitude as to what constitutes evidence and their inability to make a logical connection between (real or imagined) evidence and the conclusion that the authors want readers to draw.

A good illustration of this failing is the loudly trumpeted claim by Comfrel, two days before the 28 July election, that the indelible ink used to mark the forefinger of voters could be “easily removed”, a claim repeated in the ERA report. A video that Comfrel has placed on Youtube shows a Comfrel staff member removing the NEC’s ink from his finger, not “easily”, but by using three different unidentified liquids and scrubbing vigorously for four minutes. At least one of those liquids was corrosive, because there was reportedly clear damage to the skin of the Comfrel staff member when he returned to the NEC to show that the ink had been removed.

In a certain sense, that is evidence that the indelible ink used in Cambodian elections can be removed. The problem here is that Comfrel didn’t consider the purpose of the use of indelible ink, but instead tried to mislead the public by focusing only on the absolute validity of the statement that the ink was “indelible”.

Even without a Comfrel staff member making the sacrifice to prove it, it is obvious that a voter who wanted to vote a second time could get rid of the ink by amputating his or her stained forefinger. Less drastically, if the outer layer or layers of skin are removed, ink on them will also be removed. The aim of the indelible ink is not to make it absolutely impossible for the ink to be removed by someone who will go to any lengths, including self-harm. The aim is to make removing the ink sufficiently difficult that significant numbers, even if they want to vote twice, will not attempt it or will fail if they do attempt it.


The ink is manufactured in India and is used there and in Afghanistan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa and Thailand, as well as in Cambodia. It seems to have done the job in all those countries, as it has here since 1998. And there were few or no other complaints about it in the 28 July election. For instance, the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID), which registered with the NEC through Comfrel, had 14 observers in four provinces. KID’s report states:

Following up on a media report on the indelible ink, team members did a test by inviting voters to clean off the ink after they voted … Water, soap, lemon, rubbing alcohol, and gasoline were substances we could best find and therefore used … According to the test, voters and our own observation, the ink could not be completely cleaned off.” (

Similarly, the 31 July 2013 Cambodia Daily reported:

“… Comfrel observers in northwest Cambodia said that tests of the security ink showed that it was certainly indelible.

“In Ratanakkiri, Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces, attempts to wash off the ink with readily available substances were unsuccessful, according to Devin Morrow, who worked with Comfrel as an election observer.

“‛Using rubbing alcohol, diesel, coarse disinfectant soap and fresh limes, our results showed that the ink did not come off of the voter’s finger,’ she said in an email.”

Both the KID and Cambodia Daily reports are cited in the NEC White Paper of 5 September. But they are not countered – or even mentioned – in the ERA report two months later, which simply asserts: “The possibility of double voting became a real one when it was demonstrated ahead of the election that the ink used to protect against this was easily removed.” This failure even to acknowledge the existence of evidence that is counter to what the ERA wants to prove is characteristic of the ERA report.*

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that neither Comfrel nor the ERA show much confidence in their own claims about the ink. This is clearly revealed in the ERA report, which informs readers that, shortly after the election, Comfrel conducted a survey to find out why some people had not voted. According to the ERA report, it was easy to identify non-voters: Comfrel looked for people “without indelible ink on their forefingers immediately after voting day”! Yes: even after voting day, Comfrel seemed confident that no one had discovered and used its method of “easily removing” the ink.

Difficult questions

The ERA report’s authors’ inability to draw logical connections between evidence and conclusions is relevant here. For the sake of illustration, let’s assume for a moment that the report’s claims regarding the indelible ink are 100% accurate, and that this allows the CPP to organise double voting. Such a conclusion would raise some difficult questions.

As noted, the ink has been in use, here and in other countries, since 1998. Are we supposed to believe that the CPP in 1998 foresaw that it would need to rely on double voting in 2013, and therefore contacted the Indian manufacturers and induced them to alter the formula? What sort of compensation could have persuaded the manufacturers to alter their product for the worse? And how did they manage to keep this a secret, from the Indian public and their international customers, for 15 years?

Or is it claimed that the ink formula was altered only after the 2008 general election? In that case, was the Indian government involved in this international conspiracy to cheat the Cambodian opposition of victory? The Indian government donated the ink that was used on 28 July, and before the donation was announced, less than three months before the election, the Cambodian government could hardly have counted on having the secretly modified ink available – unless this had already been worked out secretly between the two governments well beforehand. Is it the view of the ERA that the Indian government was involved in a conspiracy of this sort?

In short, even if it were shown that it would have been possible for significant numbers of Cambodians to remove the indelible ink on election day, it would be irrational to leap to the conclusion that the defect in the ink was due to anything more than a failure of the manufacturers to test the ink sufficiently. The ERA report’s authors imply such a conclusion only because their mandate was not to provide a rational critique, but to undermine the legitimacy of the general election.

Further questions

Other questions arise – not hypothetical questions based on the ERA’s implied scenario, but real questions based on Comfrel’s video (

On 26 July, 11 media and NGO representatives at the NEC office were invited to dip their fingers into the ink and then attempt to remove it within several hours. The heading on the video’s Youtube page is, “Comfrel Noticed Indelible Ink is Removable on July 26, 2013” – as though it is reporting an almost accidental discovery. But anybody who watches the video will quickly realise that it is not recording an experiment to determine whether the ink can be removed; it is illustrating something that the video participants knew beforehand.

For example, nothing is tried unsuccessfully. There are three and only three liquids, which have to be applied in the correct order, and for the correct amount of time for each: Comfrel executive director Koul Panha, sitting on the “test” subject’s left, checks his watch to make sure the timing is correct, and he watches the “test”, not with curiosity, but with a satisfied smile on his face; when the subject hesitates over what to do next, an arm intruding from off screen points to the liquid he should dip his finger into.

There seem to be only two possibilities here. Possibility 1: In the few hours between leaving the NEC office and making the video, Comfrel’s Phnom Penh office conducted a number of experiments and happened to find a combination of chemicals that worked, unlike the attempts of its staff in other cities. It then made a video of its discovery. This would mean that the video was a staged re-enactment, not a record of the actual experiment, and that Comfrel had therefore applied a different ink to the subject’s finger in order to make the video, but pretended otherwise. I assume the organisation would not engage in such dishonest behaviour.

Possibility 2 is that Comfrel knew, well before its staff member’s inked finger left the NEC office, exactly what would remove the ink. But if that is so – and it seems almost certain – it raises some important questions.

To start with, how did Comfrel know? The NEC doesn’t distribute samples of the ink, which would give people with bad intentions the opportunity and time to find or invent ways of removing it. Hence the discovery of how to do it is almost certain to have been made outside Cambodia. Who would have a motive to spend the time, effort and money necessary to make such a discovery or invention? If there are would-be electoral cheaters in one of the other countries using the ink, they would have the motive. But if they succeeded, they would certainly not tell anyone outside their own circle about it, because doing so would lead to the ink being modified or no longer used, thus defeating the cheaters’ objective.

Who else has a reason and the resources to develop a way to remove indelible ink, and also a reason to pass on the information to an NGO in Cambodia? We can all speculate, but it would clearly be best if Comfrel cut off speculation by explaining publicly who told it how to remove the NEC’s ink from fingers. Who put that smile of certainty on Koul Panha’s face?

When answering that question, I hope Comfrel will also address a second one: when did it receive the information? If it was more than a few days before the election, then it seems very irresponsible not to have informed the authorities so that some counter-action might have been taken, rather than keeping the information to itself until 26 July and then releasing it in a blaze of publicity that could only undermine public confidence without countering any real misdeeds.

* It appears possible that no one involved in the production of the ERA report has ever read the NEC White Paper. The text of the report claims (page 30) to be citing “the NEC’s post-election White Paper”, but the footnoted reference is to an earlier, pre-election, document. A search of the report for “white paper” finds no other mention.

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