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Politicians lock horns at democracy event

SRP president fires verbal attack as elites gather to discuss democratic progress.

OPPOSITION leader Sam Rainsy launched a series of sarcastic oral salvoes at the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on Tuesday, as Cambodia’s political elite gathered to mark the second annual International Day of Democracy and promote political tolerance in the Kingdom.

Diplomats, human rights activists and members of five political parties came together for a parliamentary seminar at the National Assembly, focusing on the challenges of democratic consolidation.

But in a speech at the beginning of the daylong event, the Sam Rainsy Party president questioned the depth of the government’s commitment to democratic principles.

“I would like to take this opportunity to praise the government and the ruling party for trying to construct a picture of democracy. The ruling party has succeeded in building a picture of democracy,” he said.

He said that the “picture” painted by the ruling CPP had deceived some observers into thinking that since Cambodia had an elected parliament, it was fully democratic, adding that the Assembly was no more than a “rubber stamp” for the policy of senior government officials.

“If it is just a rubber-stamp parliament, this is not a democracy,” he said.

Sam Rainsy also offered sarcastic praise to the government, congratulating it for moving on from assassinating its opponents to merely using the courts to jail and silence them.

“It is better than before. It is not killing. Before, when I led a demonstration in front of the Assembly, [people] were killed by grenades,” he said, referring to the 1997 grenade attack on a peaceful SRP protest outside the then-National Assembly building on Sothearos Boulevard.

“But now that they’ve stopped killing, they just sue [critics] in the court or strip our [parliamentary] immunity to imprison us or force us to pay fines.”

This year, SRP lawmakers Ho Vann and Mu Sochua were stripped of their legal immunity in connection with lawsuits filed against them by senior government officials.

“It is better than killing, I recognise,” Sam Rainsy added.

CPP officials speaking at the event dismissed Sam Rainsy’s barbed comments, defending the government’s democratic behaviour since the first UN-backed elections in 1993.

“If we speak about democracy, we speak about the full freedom of people to choose their representative leaders. Cambodia has enforced this policy since 1993,” said CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun.

He said that the CPP’s success in the 2008 national elections – in which it won 90 of the National Assembly’s 123 seats – showed that Cambodians had a “mature” understanding of politics and democracy.

“All this shows that the concerns of … opposition party leader Sam Rainsy are maybe not correct,” he said.

In his speech, Chheang Vun also appealed to both international and national organisations not to drag the issue of human rights into partisan politics and use it to attack the government.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, who attended the ceremony, said that the proceedings demonstrated a wide contrast in views and a positive step forward for freedom of expression and open debate.

“I think that when speaking of political tolerance today, we should take this chance to show tolerance, so that even if we debate each other, we can do so in a friendly manner,” he said, adding that politicians on both sides had made valid points during the seminar.



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