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Parliamentary debate quashed

Praesent sudo tamen ullamcorper.
Cheam Yeap (bottom), chairman of the National Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee, speaks while National Assembly President Heng Samrin presides over a meeting in Phnom Penh, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. Photograph: Sen David/Phnom Penh Post

National Assembly President Heng Samrin shut down opposition members on Friday, abruptly cancelling a debate and calling to vote a draft law that opposition members say would have promised civil servants better compensation before being amended by the ruling party.

According to Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay, the original draft of the law had laid out housing, travel and fuel benefits for civil servants with the aim of subsidising their relatively meagre salaries, but Friday’s bill – which passed 85 to 94 – had been heavily redacted, making no mention of the benefits.

When the opposition protested the changes on the floor, however, Samrin promptly cancelled the formal debate, saying that most members of parliament agreed on the law already, and that Chhay could not “comment more, because you comment a lot during debates”.

Chhay said yesterday that under parliamentary procedure, the two sides each offer a brief summary of their positions before the actual debate begins – something that never happened Friday.

“After we mounted [our] overall view on the law, the speaker decided to skip the real part of the debate and vote on the law, and everyone raised their hand,” said Chhay, noting that he had never seen a debate cancelled altogether before.

The decision to strip the legislative processes out of later additions, he added, was also troubling.

“The [ruling party] changed that article to say that the government will determine the civil servant payment through a sub-decree, so my concern is that the government is not really using the law,” he said. “They are using sub-decrees to replace existing law.”

Koul Panha, executive director of the election monitoring group Comfrel, said that for the opposition, the current term of the National Assembly had been “stricter and stricter compared to the previous term” due to the diminished presence of royalist parties, which used to mitigate the CPP’s influence.

However, Nguon Nhel, first deputy president of the assembly, defended Samrin’s decision, saying on Friday that the president has discretion to lead the debate as he sees fit, and that Son Chhay’s preliminary argument was “enough”.

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