Cambodia's 2012 budget passed through the National Assembly yesterday unopposed, without a single question asked and no parliamentary debate in a situation the government, opposition and observers all said was unfortunate.
It took just over three hours for the law to be passed, 86 to 0, in a vote that was boycotted by the country’s main opposition force, the Sam Rainsy Party — a move intended to cast doubt over the law’s validity.
The smaller opposition Human Rights Party also boycotted the debate.
The SRP have said they took the drastic action because the party could not stand by as the government sold off vast amounts of Cambodia’s natural resources to friends and foreigners while drafting a budget that allows for the potential addition of as much as US$1.1 billion in foreign debt.
Cheam Yeap, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker and chairman of the Parliamentary Commission of Economy, Finance, Banking and Audit, told the National Assembly the debt was necessary to respond to floods that ravaged the country this year.
“The affect of infrastructure damage, in particular agricultural infrastructure, has demanded the royal government use big lending to take care [of the situation] and repair that infrastructure that has been damaged seriously,” he said, reciting the legislation.
In total, the budget allocates $2.752 billion in public expenditure, an increase of about $310 million or 12.69 per cent more than the previous year, and allows the government to draw up to $1.1 billion in concessional loans, called special drawing rights.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, speaking from France, said yesterday the government was increasing opaque foreign loan agreements to prop up the CPP, while it squandered government tax revenues through rampant corruption.
“We want to hit the government on its weak point. This foreign borrowing is the weak point of the government,” he said, adding that the boycott was already raising doubts in the minds of foreign creditors.
“Now we have come to another stage in our battle, we challenge the very system because we see the result becoming more and more unacceptable – the land grabbing, the deforestation, we see people suffering more and more – something has to be done,” he said.
On Monday, three SRP members of parliament officially resigned in a move intended to provoke a constitutional crisis by leaving the National Assembly with less than the 120 MPs stipulated in the constitution – though it has yet to be proven that the full quorum of parliamentarians is necessary.
Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan slammed the SRP resignations and boycott as irresponsible and said the opposition had missed an opportunity to explain their point of view to the Cambodian people.
“They don’t do their job; they like to make a noise. They don’t like to make a change; they want to be celebrities in the media,” he said. “It’s a golden opportunity in the National Assembly to debate on the budget law, and the opposition could have brought the critical point they want debate on [the budget].”
Carlyle Thayer, a professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, said conceding on the budget “was not a good move” and would ultimately undermine the SRP’s position within Cambodian politics.
“[Sam Rainsy] has an historic responsibly to nurture the democratic process. ‘Hello, Sam Rainsy, you could be the government tomorrow, act like it’,” he said, adding that opposition parties in any form of democracy, no matter how flawed, needed to be patient and act with dignity in parliament.
Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said a complete lack of debate of such a significant piece of legislation was “scary” and showed Cambodia’s whole multiparty democracy was headed back to “square one”.
“The negotiation of the budget, the way they communicate, has not been satisfactory. They [the SRP] have been ignored, and I think it is normal that if you have been elected, you are able to do your job,” he said.