The new Cambodian National Assembly has attended a workshop sponsored by the National
Democratic Institute (NDI) for International Affairs and the International Republican
Institute (IRI) here in Phnom Penh. Over the past weekend members of the young assembly
met and talked with an experienced parliamentarian from Bangladesh and a former United
Dr. Abdul Moyeen Khan has been a member of the Bangladesh Parliament since his country's
changeover from years of autocratic rule. The Honorable Edward F. Feighan served
the 19th Congressional District of the state of Ohio for ten years as a member of
the United States House of Representatives . The two met with many members of the
new Assembly to address problems of common concern as Cambodia moves toward democracy.
This was the first interaction that the newly elected Parliamentarians have had as
a body with outsiders. Dr. Kahn said "my impression is that they are keen to
move, to get through this transition period". He saw the workshop as initiating
a process, one he hopes will continue, of exchange between these Parliamentarians
and others outside the country.
Dr. Kahn hoped his talk and visit would give them the feeling that they were part
of a world-wide community of Parliamentarians who were confronted with similar difficulties
in the pursuit of the solution to similar problems. The situation in Cambodia is
not as unique as it might appear from within Cambodia, he said. There are "surprisingly
quite a few parallels between Bangladesh's move to democracy and the situation here
in Cambodia," he said.
Many third-world countries are trying to "work out liberal democracy. In the
past few years many countries have emerged from their autocratic past," he said.
"It is time, both for Cambodia and for these other countries to do this, he
says. "We all have our historical and cultural traditions, but we cannot stick
to traditions that are thousands of years old ...this will not work in modern times."
Cambodia will undoubtedly "develop a government that will have its own unique
features," as does Bangladesh, he said. Eastern democracies have certain features
which are typically eastern, "they will not be identical". But with improvements
in science and technology, it is essential that governments try to improve the living
conditions of their people. "Unless we do that, we might go on for years and
years debating our political processes, without addressing the conditions of our
One mistake that Dr. Kahn says his country had made was to concentrate too much on
individual personalities, and they failed to work to institutionalize democracy.
"In many eastern countries we did not really try to promote institutions, on
the contrary we had been paying too much attention to individuals." "I
strongly feel that the time has come to work on democratic, political institutions."
"No one [single person or leader] is indispensable," he said.
Dr. Kahn said that there exist cultural traditions in which certain individuals play
a central role in politics, and in some cases the transition to democracy, "in
its early stages" has been aided by single individuals, but, he said "as
a general rule, countries should not become dependent on a single individual, because
when they are gone, in the absence of institutionalized arrangements, the system
tends to collapse." "This happened in Bangladesh and the people suffered
because of it."
In light of other parallels, between his country's experience and that of Cambodia,
Dr. Kahn advised the members of the Cambodian National Assembly on the importance
of a free press. He also told them of the importance of an independent judiciary,
which "plays a very important role in preserving democracy."
With respect to the Constitution, Dr. Kahn advised that the parties focus on achieving
the lowest common denominator. If they tried to achieve a fully comprehensive document
,dead-lock might be the result. Dr. Kahn indicated that seeing the constitution as
simply one step, though an important one, in a process, might help to achieve an
early and acceptable outcome for this transitional period.
The Representatives themselves had questions of philosophy and of detail. With respect
to detail, questions arose about how internal voting was to be done, the "principles
of majority", "how decisions are taken", "how an actual voting
process takes place in the House", "how party caucuses are held".
More general questions included whether there should be an upper house and a lower
The workshops were conducted in two phases. First, Dr. Kahn and Mr. Feighan met with
"one or two of their leaders, and tried to see how they saw their own future,
and the process in which they were engaged". These meetings were followed by
larger meetings. Finally, a reception was held at the Floating Hotel in Phnom Penh.
The two visitors met with approximately eighty of the members of the Assembly.
Dr. Kahn tried to encourage the development of informal groups that cut across party
Staff members of NDI and IRI have spent the last six months working in Phnom Penh
and Cambodia to further the institutionalization of pluralism here. World-wide the
Institutes have implemented democratic programs in more than 50 countries.
In Cambodia, the staff say that they "have worked with the political party leadership
in Phnom Penh as well as at the provincial level, where they conducted workshops
and provided general consultation". In addition, NDI/IRI "has provided
technical expertise and training to the political parties in the areas of party organization,
voter education, and the use of the media as a communications tool." The staff
of NDI/IRI have" convened multi-party discussions on the electoral campaign
and the code of conduct."
Dr. Kahn, a theoretical physicist of international standing, is engaged in environmental
research in Bangladesh, and is the published author of two books of poetry. Mr. Feighan,
a lawyer, is recognized as a leading authority on foreign policy and international
trade and finance.