A racist taunt delivered in parliament by a ruling party lawmaker sparked a walkout by opposition party members yesterday, who were outraged the speaker of the house failed to censure the acerbic attack.
Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) lawmaker Cheang Vun was allowed to continue an abusive tirade against the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP) after calling them “Phnoung” – a racist slur referring to a northeastern ethnic minority, used to suggest someone is an ignorant savage.
His attack came after HRP leader Kem Sokha took his first chance to address the parliament after four years as a seated member, a situation he painted as totally absurd.
Once again, the actual parliamentary agenda became a sideshow to a circus of squabbling over whether or not the opposition should be allowed to engage in meaningful debate.
That agenda had mysteriously changed at the last minute from a scheduled vote on the national budget – an item that last year resulted in yet another opposition walkout amid attacks from the CPP – to the ratification of two nuclear conventions.
The squabble began when Kem Sokha used his 20 minutes on the floor to call for an end to internal National Assembly rules passed in 2007 that prevent members from addressing the house unless they form a group of 10.
This means that despite being an elected member of parliament, Sokha, who will switch to become deputy president of the newly formed Cambodian National Rescue Party after next year’s election, could not address the Assembly unless he formed a group with other parties, as the HRP has less than 10 seats.
Finally given the floor, Sokha told the house that no incumbent parliamentarian in the world had been subjected to a situation where they addressed the house for the first time four years after they were elected.
He called for the government to actually implement treaties, not just sign them, before urging a more constructive and cooperative spirit between the government and opposition, a request that was prove provocative.
During a speech in which Chheang Vun compared opposition leaders to Thai “Yellow Shirts”, labelled them convicts and said they were useless, the opposition became increasingly vocal, angering him.
About 10 minutes into his speech, Vun declared: “You are cruel; you are Phnoung; you are cheating people”, triggering an immediate walkout.
“Why do you have to walk out when I address the National Assembly? When you spoke, we listened to you until you finished your expression,” he cried at opposition members leaving the chamber.
Afterward, SRP party whip Son Chhay said Vun’s behaviour was totally inappropriate.
“These people [Phnoung], even though they are not very educated, they are very honest people. Their land has been taken away from them by the Chinese companies and the Vietnamese companies. These Phnoung, they have suffered enough from the CPP all these years,” he said.
“We cannot accept that and the language of looking down on these indigenous people. But he did not stop, and [National Assembly president and speaker of the house] Heng Samrin allowed him to continue to speak to us in this abusive language.”
Chhay called for an apology but rather than doing that, Vun instead defended his comments, insisting Phnong were not legitimate Cambodian citizens but migrants who had no respect for the law.
CPP lawmaker and First Vice-President of the Cambodian National Assembly Nguon Nhel warned parliament any future opposition boycotts would result in a 15-day suspension from the assembly and cuts to their salaries.
Koul Panha, executive director of election monitoring group Comfrel, said procedures in the parliament were “so bad” that it had simply become a space with no meaningful interaction, where the CPP simply rushed through legislation
“They have no clear justification,” he said of the introduction of internal rules mandating you join a group to take the floor, while laughing. “They said they learned from Germany, but they are wrong.”
Panha explained that though the German parliament did indeed allow members to form groups, this did not preclude individuals from speaking in parliament.