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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Senate's decade angers critics

Senate's decade angers critics

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090323_02.jpg

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Khem Rony John

CPP and Senate President Chea Sim speaks on Friday at the Senate building in Phnom Penh. 

IN the wake of official celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Kingdom's Senate, opposition members and civil society groups have called for the body's reform, saying it has failed to fulfil its constitutional obligations and is acting as a drain on national resources.

In a ceremony marking the Senate's first decade Friday, Senate President Chea Sim said the body had contributed strongly to the Kingdom's political stability and economic development since its establishment on March 25, 1999.

"During the 10 years of its existence, the Senate has walked an honourable path through activities that have aided the country's reconstruction and national development, and it has played an important role in integrating Cambodia with the region and the world in an era of globalisation," he said in a speech.

But while Article 112 of the Kingdom's Constitution states that the Senate has "duties to coordinate the work between the Assembly and the Government", government critics said the 61-member body performs no practical function.

"Over the last 10 years, [the Senate] has not proven to be useful in any way at all. It has only managed to spend large amounts of public funds for nothing," opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Sunday.

"It is a legitimate body because it is in the Constitution, but performing its role in a useful way is another story."

He added that for 2008, the body cost a total of nearly 29 billion riels (US$7.07 million) in salaries and upkeep.

Sam Rainsy also criticised the body's "non-universal" elections - open only to commune councillors and lawmakers - as undemocratic, calling for the introduction of direct universal elections.

"This current Senate was elected [in 2006] by commune councillors who were elected in 2002," he said. "But from 2002 to 2009, many things have changed."

Several of those contacted by the Post said that the body itself had a questionable origin, having been born out of political compromise in the aftermath of the 1998 election.

At that time, Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh was awarded the post of National Assembly president as a reward for bringing his party into coalition with the CPP, leading to the creation of the Senate as a new power base for CPP President Chea Sim, who had occupied the post of Assembly head since 1993.

"Ten years ago, the Senate was created out of political expediency to create a position for Chea Sim," Sam Rainsy said.

"Everybody knew from the very beginning that it had no utility of any sort, and since then it has proven these first perceptions."

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, agreed that because of its origins, the Senate was an institutional contrivance that served no necessary function.

Although the body "reviewed" legislation passed by the National Assembly, checking laws to ensure their intended meanings were reflected in eventual legislation, its power to effect changes in the law was limited, he said. "They are the proofreaders of the Assembly," he said.

He added that in 10 years, the Senate sent just two laws back to the National Assembly for revision, and that they both concerned matters of semantics rather than substance.

Others said that the Senate, lacking the power to fulfill its purpose as a body of review, had become - like many Cambodian institutions - a vessel for political party power.

  Over the last 10 years, the senate has not proven ... useful in any way at all.

Unlike in most democratic states, Cambodian Senators are elected as representatives of their political parties and are personally dependent upon party support.
"If you are dismissed from the party, or you resign your membership in the party, you also lose your seat in parliament or in the Senate," said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.

"In this situation, political parties control the National Assembly and the Senate."

Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha said the body played a potentially important role, but that without reforms it would continue to be compromised by political control. "The Senate demands a lot of money but provides very little for the national interest," he said.

The presence of 15 powerful businessmen in the Senate was another worrying trend, said Ou Virak, showing that economic interests were now benefiting from  parliamentary immunity.

"This is an interesting turn and a significant one, because it indicates the business interests involved in obtaining a seat in the Senate," he said.

In a special March bulletin, the Senate claimed to have "actively fulfilled" its duties, making recommendations to the National Assembly on 205 laws, holding 155 meetings and 15 plenary sessions, and organising eight forums on the government's decentralisation reforms.

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