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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - MPs busy passing 106 words a fortnight

MPs busy passing 106 words a fortnight

IT IS Tuesday, July 9. The bell rings punctually at 8am. Parliamentarians break from

their gossip groups, stub out cigarettes and amble to their seats in the National

Assembly.

The Assembly's Vice-Chairman Loy Sim Chheang steps up to the podium after ten minutes,

gazes around the half-empty room and, realizing nobody else will turn up, says coolly:

"May I announce the session closed. See you on Thursday at 8:30am."

The MPs leave without taking any papers out of their briefcases. They head off to

their vehicles with obvious frustration, mumbling about their work frequently being

hindered by a lack of a quorum.

"Something has got to be done to cure this illness of quorum shortages. If not,

people just look down on this institution," says MP Ahmad Yahya.

The scene was similar on Monday the day before.

When Chheang showed up a few minutes after 8am, the session's secretary reported

how many MPs had turned up: 84 - exactly a quorum, no more, no less. The day's itinerary

was to discuss Article 4 of the Nationality Law.

Sar Sa At, secretary of the Commission on Interior and Investigation, read out the

article and the MPs swung into debate.

Ky Lum Ang was worried that the article would discriminate against a child born to

an unmarried mother. Dit Munty demanded a ruling about automatic nationality by birth.

Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng took over the microphone and explained what the

law was intended to mean.

Unfortunately, the quorum - as we've almost come to accept by now - was a short-lived

one.

Somewhere in the middle of the discussion Minister of Planning Chea Chanto picked

up his briefcase and walked out. He was said later to have gone to an "urgent

meeting".

No quorum; but no-one noticed for a while.

The discussion continued until a secretary passed a note to Chheang who immediately

called the session off at 8:45am. MPs re-assembled their dossiers and left.

"I'm fed up with coming here just to go back home. It is a waste of time. You

don't need to ask how many times the session has been postponed, you can see for

yourself now," said Pol Ham. "The people are unhappy to see us carrying

our briefcases [and] walking in our suits back and forth without having a meeting.

It's useless," he said.

Over a fortnight from June 24 when the draft law became available for discussion,

three articles - consisting of exactly 106 words (in the English draft) - were adopted.

Just the first article got through on June 24, as CPP members had to attend their

party's plenum and anniversary for the rest of the week. The session was expected

to resume on July 1.

But again, a quorum couldn't be found until July 4 when MPs - who earn between $1,300

to $1,500 a month - were able to get two more articles approved. Between July 8-9,

MPs just couldn't seem to get beyond Article 4.

Why should this be? The reasons are many: There is no Wednesday meeting, because

that's when the Cabinet also meets; some MPs are busy with their ministerial portfolios;

some are out accompanying the Prime Ministers on trips; some are overseas; others

are simply absent without leave.

Some MPs blame the leg-dragging on colleagues intent on derailing the topic-of-the-day.

More than that, they say, the Assembly's internal regulation requiring chapter-by-chapter

debate has not been strictly respected.

"We acknowledge that overwhelming discussion is the nature of democracy but

the Assembly's chairman must use his right to push, but not to prevent [discussion],

the meeting forward," said Im Sothy.

But whatever the reason might be to justify their absence, MPs' performance is being

widely seen as erratic, at best.

"[The Assembly] is certainly functioning inefficiently. The more the MPs are

out of session, the more limits they make to the amount of work they are supposed

to do," said one legal expert who requested anonymity. "When the society

is in need of laws, you have to fill the void and move faster."

With a three-month Parliamentary recess scheduled to start July 19, there are fears

that the law may not be passed in time if the debate continues to hiccup its way

along.

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