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Democracy celebration questioned

OPPOSITION parties have cast doubts on the government’s commitment to democratic reform ahead of a parliamentary event designed to discuss the strengthening of democracy and political tolerance in the Kingdom.

The National Assembly is to mark the second annual International Day of Democracy with an all-day seminar at parliament today, including
politicians from five political parties, human rights activists and diplomatic officials.

But opposition officials say they fear the event, designed to “raise awareness and commitment to democracy and political tolerance”, may paper over the government’s weak commitment to democratic principles.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said his party was still unsure whether to attend the event, saying the published schedule did not include strong representation from the opposition.

“This issue involves democratic principles, [so] the discussion must be divided equally. If it is just going to propagandise for the government and the ruling party, it will be difficult for us to participate,” he said.

Ou Chanrith, a lawmaker from the Human Rights Party, doubted the discussion would bear much fruit, saying that the ruling party has never tolerated opposition criticisms.

“In the past, I have seen that the ruling party does not understand the role of opposition parties, or understands but pretends not to understand,” Ou Chanrith said.

“We have not done anything wrong. We have just critiqued the construction of [Cambodia’s] democracy.”

The Democracy Day celebration follows an escalating government offensive against outspoken critics, two of whom have been sentenced to prison terms on defamation and disinformation charges since June.

SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua, who was stripped of her immunity in June after she was sued for defamation by Prime Minister Hun Sen, told a US congressional panel in Washington on Thursday that Cambodian democracy was experiencing “an alarming free fall” due to the
prosecutions.

Civil society representatives said that despite the recent crackdown, there was much that could be gained from an open discussion in a forum such as the National Assembly.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, who is scheduled to speak at the seminar, said the event would allow civil society a good chance to engage progressive government officials.

He said one of the main challenges in Cambodia was an institutionalised paranoia among certain officials, who were acting as a bulwark to further democratic reforms.

“There are still a lot of these fears of the unknown. There’s a feeling [among some officials] that if things change, they would not be in the position they are currently in,” he said. “The best thing is to understand these fears and try to address them.”

Koul Panha, executive director of election monitor Comfrel, said the event was important for promoting “democracy and political tolerance” and that he appreciated the effort to hold the discussion now.

One CPP official set to speak at today’s event dismissed the opposition’s complaints, pointing out that the ruling party had gained power through a popular vote.

“Tolerance for one another is the policy of the CPP,” said Khuon Sudary, president of the National Assembly’s First Committee.

Mu Sochua fights back
Following her congressional testimony on Thursday, SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday, discussing Cambodia’s human rights situation in greater detail.

Mu Sochua said that during the meeting, Clinton “made it very clear that she does not wish to see further deterioration” of the right to free expression in the Kingdom.

Mu Sochua added that Clinton promised to send a US delegation to monitor the Cambodian human rights situation within the next few months.

“To be practical and to be effective, there has to be an on-the-ground assessment,” she said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE

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