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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Charter: Out of sight, Out of Mind?

Charter: Out of sight, Out of Mind?

One hundred and twenty members of the Constituent Assembly were elected in May as

representatives of the people. Twelve members were chosen on June 30 to draft a constitution.

The drafting of the constitution is being done behind closed doors. There has been

a complete embargo on information concerning the deliberations of the committee.

The Venerable Yos Huot, the head of Ponleu Khmer, a Cambodian citizen's coalition

for the constitution, says that "democracy is participation." So far, "in

the writing of the constitution there has been no participation by the people of

Cambodia. How can this be democratic. Who will protect the rights of the Cambodian

people?" he asked.

Jim Noonan, of Maryknoll, an American Catholic organization in Phnom Penh, said,

"Speaking personally, the fact that we as foreigners do not know what is going

on is not so worrisome as the fact that the Khmer people don't know what is going

on."

Sources within the National Assembly say that when drafting began, the committee

worked on the constitution, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 12 noon. Those hours

have been extended recently to include afternoons, but as to what the committee has

done, there are only rumors and speculation. No spokesman has been appointed by the

Assembly, no one in the committee or assembly is authorized to say anything publicly

about the draft constitution.

Sources within UNTAC said that the United Nations has not been given a draft constitution,

nor has the Constituent Assembly taken advantage of the technical assistance that

is available in the drafting of this constitution. UNTAC is both unable and unwilling

to say anything about the constitution.

Lt. Gen. Tol Lah, the General Secretary of the Constituent Assembly, points out that

the regulations that have been accepted by the Assembly for the conduct of their

affairs stipulates that the work of the committees are to be "conducted confidentially."

The Reglement Interieur of the constituent assembly states that the work of any committee

of the assembly cannot be made public before the report of that committee has been

presented to the Assembly.

The Ven. Yos Huot stated that "the preparation of the constitution should not

be done in secret". Yos Huot has petitioned His Excellency Son Sann, the President

of the Constituent Assembly, and Mr. Yasushi Akashi, the Special Representative of

the Secretary General of the United Nations in Cambodia to make the deliberations

more open. Neither has so far responded.

Yos Huot said, "in Cambodia it is always like this, the leaders think that they

know the best for the people. We are afraid [because of the secrecy] that there is

something more, that they will not keep their campaign promise to bring liberal democracy

and human rights to Cambodia."

Brother Noonan asked: "Are we going through the same thing again, a few people

deciding on a constitution for years to come. Not only should the people know what

is going on, they should be allowed to participate."

Lt. Gen. Tol Lah said that the constituent assembly has received many requests to

observe the proceedings, and also "many good ideas" from people who are

interested in the work of the assembly. But as yet no one has been allowed to observe

the proceedings, though Ponleu Khmer was granted three seats in the full constituent

assembly as observers.

Sources within UNTAC indicate that there is some time pressure involved. If the Paris

Peace Accords are taken seriously, the constitution must be written by Aug. 28, three

months to the day after the end of the May elections. Mr. Akashi told the inaugural

session of the Constituent Assembly on 14 June that their "task must be completed

within three months." On a literal reading of his speech, this will give them

until 14 September. Prolonged debates will not allow these kinds of dead-lines to

be met, but some argue that this is no justification for "complete silence."

Ponleu Khmer is an umbrella organization for Khmer NGOs which are concerned about

the provisions of the constitution. In particular they want to ensure that the constitution

specifies human rights and offers explicit protection for women. In private conversations

with those close to the writing of the constitution, Yos Huot has been told that

"three fourths of the articles of the constitution have been written, and there

is so far no mention of human rights or the rights of women."

Further he has been told that Buddhism has been made the state religion. The Ven.

Yos Huot said that he "fears that by doing so, the Buddhist hierarchy will again

be an arm of the state." Under Hun Sen the upper church leadership was chosen

by the national political leadership. It is also said that the writers of the constitution

are considering denying the vote to monks, soldiers and policemen, presumably as

a way of de-politicizing workers in these organizations.

The United Nations has so far taken a "hands off" stance toward the writing

of the constitution. A high level source in UNTAC says that "the U.N. has so

far not seen any reason for worry" about the process by which the constitution

is being written. The United Nation's withdrawal from Cambodia continues.

The hands-off approach is consistent with the wishes of the Cambodian political leadership.

The UN has provided logistical support to the Constituent Assembly and has placed

a group within the National Assembly building under the leadership of Sam Borin,

a native Cambodian and UNTAC employee to coordinate such support with the General

Secretary of the Constituent Assembly.

Some have argued that the Constitution will more likely be followed by the Cambodian

government if the international community, represented on the one hand by UNTAC here

and on the other, by the international NGOs do not attempt to unduly influence its

writing. Jim Noonan takes the argument one step further, "The more the Cambodian

people participate, the more they will own [the constitution], the more they will

live by it," he said.

Setha Chin, a teacher of Khmer at the Petite Lycee said: "Before they finish

the Constitution, they should allow us to see it so the people can give the assembly

their ideas."

The Paris Peace Accords stipulate principles for the writing of the constitution.

UNTAC invested heavily in explaining to the Cambodian people on TV and the radio

what the registration, elections, the constituent assembly and the constitution were

all about.

For example, just prior to the election, in a dialog produced by the UNTAC Information

and Education Component and broadcast over television, the Aunt asked: "If the

constitution is so important why don't they appoint the great law makers to meet

in Phnom Penh to write it? Why do we have to vote for them to draft the law?"

The Uncle replied: "Oh! dear, we do that because we want to make the country

a real democracy!"

Akashi told the members of the Assembly at their inaugural meeting that "Your

presence here is a clear affirmation of democracy in Cambodia and of the unmistakable

will of the people to become the masters of their own country."

If one believes that the Cambodian Constitution will chart the course for the future

of Cambodia, the mastery of Cambodia has not yet been placed in the hands of the

people, so far it is only in the hands of 12 men.

There is also a rumor that the constitution's approval will be delayed until the

end of September. If true, it appears that the draftsmen will have an even freer

hand.

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