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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Blow to democracy'

'Blow to democracy'

Expelling Son Chhay (PPP V 10/No19, page 3) is a serious blow to democracy.

As a Cambodian who has no political affiliation I am terribly disappointed to see

the undemocratic and unjustified ouster of Son Chhay as Chairman of the National

Assembly Commission on Public Works, Transport, Telecommunications, and Post, Industry,

Mines, Energy, and Commerce.

Son Chhay has been elected twice as a member of the National Assembly. During that

time I have closely observed his work as a National Assembly member, both when I

worked at the National Assembly Commission on Protection of Human Rights and Reception

of Complaints and thereafter. As members of all parties would agree, Son Chhay has

been one of the most outstanding members of the National Assembly.

While most members of the National Assembly have been passive, lazy (many just sit

and read newspapers during debates) and un-opinionated - because of fear of being

expelled by their authoritarian party leaders - Son Chhay has always been courageous,

active and worked hard in fulfilling his obligations as a representative of the people

of Siem Reap and Cambodia. Despite being a member of an opposition party, his accomplishments

for Cambodia and its people are countless. In every legislative debate as well as

in the commissions he has been prepared for discussion and contributed excellent

perspectives in upholding the rule of law, democracy and fighting corruption. When

something is black he says it is black, and when it is white he says it is white.

This is why the leaders of the CPP and FUNCINPEC do not like him.

Furthermore, Son Chhay has actively participated in civic society by joining in many

public forums seeking means to protect social justice and improve the public policy.

This also worries Cambodia's leaders, who apparently don't want public input into

public policy.

But it is too late to turn back the clock. Since the 1993 election Cambodia has adopted

a liberal and democratic constitution that emphasizes the rule of law, which is the

foundation of democracy. Under the rule of law any accused person is given an opportunity

to defend himself from any accusation. It is therefore an embarrassment to Cambodia

that Son Chhay and his two SRP colleagues on his commission were prevented by the

six members of FUNCINPEC and CPP from joining the meeting that voted to expel him

as Chairman of the Commission. I could not believe this. It is a joke on democracy

when they closed the door and didn't allowed Son Chhay and his two colleagues to

join the meeting.

Is the parliament a private club or a state institution? With respect to Son Chhay's

case not only his right to self-defense was denied, but the right to testify by his

two supporting members were deprived as well. As lawmakers, they should not have

done that. This also indicates a signal of weakness of the leadership of the National

Assembly. When they do not respect the democratic rule and abide by the law that

they themselves created who do they expect to obey the law? Instead, they should

act as a role model in upholding democratic rules. All members of the National Assembly

should not let this happen. If this undemocratic and unjustified expulsion of Son

Chhay succeeds, it will become a terrible precedent. Others in the National Assembly

are certain to face the same fate as him if they have the courage to speak out.

What do I tell my children? Might makes right? Should they go to school and learn

civics, or should they learn how to cheat, rob and steal?

As a member of the National Assembly Son Chhay has done the right thing by monitoring

and questioning all the unconstitutional activities of the members of the royal government.

That is the duty and responsibility of every parliamentarian in every country. They

invite members of the government to explain before their commissions what they sense

is not right or against the public interest. Parliamentarians are not elected to

just sit in a comfortable chair, but to take action for the interest of the people.

The National Assembly becomes strong and gains prestige only when every member works

hard for the rule of law, not the rule of person or power. We are not fighting for

Son Chhay as an individual, but for the principle of democracy and rule of law under

the Constitution.

I also wish to express my support for His Majesty the King who intervened in this

case, as well as for the human rights activists who have been attempting to take

action to protect Son Chhay from being fired. Principles like the promotion and protection

of human rights, democracy and human dignity need to be institutionalized so that

they become state policy or law - and are enforced. To achieve this civic society

groups need to work with brave MPs from all parties - such as Son Chhay - to assist

them. If the representatives of the people are oppressed in this way, will civil

society be next? What will happen when they hold a public forum on corruption, or

when they expose the fact that a Minister is taking money from the industry he is

supposed to regulate. What will happen to people who ask where the money came from

to build the castles and buy the Mercedes that the Prime Minister, the President

of the National Assembly and so many other excellencies now possess? Where do the

rolls of crisp new $100 bills come from that appear from their pockets?

Corruption is corroding Cambodian society. Yet when Son Chhay and Senator Kem Sokha

proposed anti-corruption and asset declaration laws way back in 1995 the government

completely ignored it - and the international community wasn't interested either.

Only now are diplomats and donors starting to take this subject seriously. Son Chhay's

expulsion is as much a message to them as it is to the members of parliament. Are

they going to take this sitting down? Will they keep recommending a blank check for

a corrupt government that has never shown any good faith in tackling corruption?

Do they have the courage to take on this plague and fight it however high in the

Cambodian government the fight takes them? Conferences and white papers merely create

a sense of déjà vu and are ineffective; the time for action is now.

Diplomats who believe in democratic values and rule of law should condemn the removal

of Son Chhay. This is not to support Son Chhay as an individual, but to protect the

principle. The international community needs to take a holistic approach when trying

to help Cambodia in alleviating poverty, improving good governance, and to become

a democratic country. Removing a man like Son Chhay is a big step in the wrong direction.

The international community is not going to provide financial aid to Cambodia forever.

During this transitional period they have the leverage to help Cambodia to become

a state of law and to stand by itself. To achieve that Cambodia needs to have good

human resources with political will and courage to make change. Son Chhay has risked

his life to achieve the very same goals that the donor countries say they are committed

to. Will the diplomats stand up and be counted this time, or will they continue to

show the same cowardice that allowed the culture of impunity, undemocratic practice

and rampant corruption to stand? I believe that to a great extent the undemocratic

behavior and practice of the Cambodian government will be softened if all donor countries

unite and put pressure and conditions on it. Donors have to remember that their assistance

is supposed to be for the good of the Cambodian people, not for the government.

Through my close observation of Son Chhay's activities for years, I would conclude

that the people of Cambodia and foreign diplomats who advocate good governance should

consider that it is a precious gift to have Son Chhay working as the Chairman of

a National Assembly commission. To allow his removal to go unchallenged and without

consequences will have a tragic and long-term impact on democracy in Cambodia, and

will play a part in ensuring that much of the donor money given to Cambodia will

continue to be wasted and stolen.

Sum Sokry, Cambodian Lawyer, Washington DC.

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