AFTER meeting with his father King Sihanouk, National Assembly President Prince Norodom
Ranariddh said that he would move quickly on the long-overdue formation of the Senate,
despite a tenacious chorus of criticism over the proposed body and its possible repercussions
for the country.
"The King urged me to immediately convene an extraordinary session in order
to amend the Constitution and create the Senate," the Prince said outside the
palace after a closed-door meeting Feb 17.
"I reaffirm that Funcinpec is ready to vote for the Constitutional amendment;
the quorum will not lack."
The Prince agreed to the creation of the Senate as part of the political deal with
the CPP which formed the government in Nov 98. Senior CPP figures are anxious to
put the Senate in place; party president Chea Sim has been waiting to take on the
job as chairman since November, and Prime Minister Hun Sen was promised Cambodia
would have full ASEAN membership only after the Senate's creation.
However, senior members of Ranariddh's own party say they were not consulted on the
November deal in the first place, and still mutter that the Senate is nothing but
an expensive sinecure for Chea Sim, who will hold the important place of Acting Head
of State in the King's absence.
"I think the CPP was afraid to have the vote when Ranariddh was not here, in
case Funcinpec did not vote for it," said a Funcinpec source.
NA legislative commission chair Monh Saphan said the permanent committee had planned
to meet Jan 27 and put the Senate draft onto the Assembly agenda, but was unable
to because of lack of quorum.
Ranariddh, who returned from a month in France on Feb 15, consulted with Hun Sen
and Chea Sim following his meeting with the King and promised the Assembly would
A glance at the draft shows it will be a big job - adding this new Senatorial body
to the legislative branch will require no less than 75 articles to be changed.
Significantly, the revamped system will give the Senate partial veto power over Assembly
legislation - although if the Senate rejects a bill, the NA can still pass it through
an open-vote absolute majority.
"Sometimes the Assembly is a little bit fast, so the Senate must have the possibility
to re-examine the law," Ranariddh said.
But others, including the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, oppose the plan.
"We disagreed with the idea from the start - it's a waste of money, only to
serve individual interests, and will create a lot of confusion within the legislative
powers. So we're not going to vote for it," SRP parliamentarian Son Chhay said,
adding that if the SRP were ever to control the Assembly, they would abolish the
However, the SRP's at most 15 negative votes cannot derail the process if Funcinpec
MPs toe Ranariddh's line - which they are expected to. "Unity is important,
the most important," said the Funcinpec official.
Phnom Penh-based diplomats say that they will look upon a successful Senate formation
as a positive sign that the government is willing to cooperate for common goals.
Members of Cambodia's first, 61-seat Senate are slated to be appointed according
to party representation in the Assembly: 30 by the CPP, 20 by Funcinpec, and 7 by
the SRP. Four others will be appointed by the King.
A Senate law will have to be drafted to control future Senate membership procedures
before this Senate's 6-year term runs out; the Constitutional amendment specifies
that the King and the Assembly will appoint two members each, with the rest elected
through "a partial election".
Several mooted Senatorial candidates may be keen to be installed in their new posts
because they offer parliamentary immunity. Funcinpec's Kem Sokha, who faced a court
inquiry earlier this year for speeches critical of the government, is one pick for
the Senate - possibly as Secretary-General. His fellow former Son Sann Party official
Sabu Bacha is also tipped for membership.
The SRP's Kong Korm, who party officials say will be nominated, is currently in Bangkok.
The former CPP member reportedly is unwilling to return to Cambodia without immunity.
Funcinpec has announced it will nominate former resistance general Nhek Bun Chhay,
but party sources say Chhay only took the nomination as a consolation prize: he reportedly
would have preferred to be ambassador to Thailand.
However, as moves to create the Senate rolls inexorably on, some wonder where the
money to pay 61 new government salaries will come from, especially as the government
has been denying it can raise teachers' meager wages during recent strikes.
"We have no money at all," Hun Sen told reporters Feb 3. "Even if
they strangled me and pulled out my fingernails, I would not know what to do,"
he said of the teacher's demands.
"Ranariddh and Hun Sen will have to face criticism from the whole nation,"
Son Chhay said. "On one hand they say they don't have enough money for salaries,
on the other hand they say they need the Senate. If they are smart they should think
He said the SRP favors the option, proposed by an NGO coalition, of making Chea Sim
the head of the Constitutional Council instead, which could still give Sim the powerful
position of Acting Head of State but does not require 60 new salaries to pay.
King Norodom Sihanouk, who helped broker the original November deal, has publicly
supported the idea of a Senate, although he has expressed concern at the potential
cost and advocated that Senators be elected and not appointed.
Senate formation could have an important effect on the procedures for picking Sihanouk's
successor - a matter reportedly weighing heavily on the ailing monarch's mind, especially
after the death and funeral of Jordan's King Hussein.
A new monarch will be chosen by the Council of the Throne. The Constitution now delineates
the Council as the Assembly chair and two vice-chairs; the Prime Minister; and the
heads of the two main monastic orders - a grouping generally thought to be tilted
4-2 in CPP favor.
But the amendments included in the Senate package alter the composition of the Council,
adding the Senate president and two vice-presidents - possibly tipping the balance
even more towards CPP.
However, the crucial law on the Council of the Throne has yet to be written, so it
is unclear whether the body must agree on a new monarch unanimously, or by majority
Son Chhay says he is drafting a law at the moment, and hopes to give it to the Assembly
Permanent Committee within ten days.
Further progress on the Senate is up to Ranariddh; his comments since his return
seem to signal his acceptance that the Senate is inevitable.
A diplomatic source noted: "The bottom line is that it's part of the political