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Voice from the wilderness

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081229_06.jpg

The Human Rights Party’s Kem Sokha says efforts to muzzle the opposition during parliamentary debate hurts democracy

Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN

Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha, shown here at his offices on December 22, speaks about his party’s role in the current government.

With only three lawmakers, your party has no right to speak in the National Assembly. What is your position on this issue?

The Human Rights Party still claims a full right of expression within the National Assembly, as a voice of the minority. We may only be three parliamentarians, but we still represent the 40,000 people who gave us their vote.

In the National Assembly, we empower the minority by placing checks and balances on the country's leadership. But if the ruling party monopolises speaking time, we lose these checks and balances that are so essential in a democracy.

The internal rules of the National Assembly specify that lawmakers need to form groups of at least 10 members in order to speak.

But we must ask who created this rule and why. Was it to promote or to reduce freedom of expression? Cambodia's Constitution emphasises freedom of expression of the Cambodian people and the lawmakers who represent them, and when we make a law we must respect the Constitution.

We will continue to push for an amendment of the internal rules of the National Assembly. When the CPP wants to amend a law, everything goes smoothly for them. But why can we not revise rules if this revision would promote freedom and democracy? Some CPP lawmakers tell us we must respect the law, which is easier said than done. We respect the law, but it must be good law.

What is the reaction of your supporters?

The Cambodian people are very unhappy, but I tried to calm them and wait for a resolution. But the CPP behaves disrespectfully because it won 90 seats in the Assembly. If no solution is found, our 40,000 supporters will be very angry, and we will continue to struggle for an amendment. I don't want to worry the Cambodian people, but why is the CPP so worried about our three HRP lawmakers?

According to the internal rules of the National Assembly, if a minority party cannot form a group of 10, it should join another party group in order to be able to speak.

THE RULING PARTY MUST GIVE A VOICE TO THE OPPOSITION AND MINOR GROUPS IN THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY.

Why doesn't the HRP do it?

We don't join another party because we want to preserve our party's identity. This requirement is wrong in a liberal democracy, and it shows that the National Assembly is not a pluralistic parliament. Here, the big party dominates the small party.

But smaller parties should be able to express themselves regardless of how many parliamentarians it has.

We have also suggested that lawmakers from other parties should be able to form a group with us, and speak with a common voice.
Why do you think these rules are in place?

Parliaments in other countries oblige lawmakers to form groups in order to manage speaking time more easily. But most of these parliaments are divided into ruling parties and opposition, not into groups as in Cambodia. Of course, the opposition is a minority, but they still have time to speak.

In Cambodia, the National Assembly limits freedom of expression because the ruling party is afraid of criticism from the opposition.

Even members of the ruling party don't dare to criticise the head of government because they don't want him to lose his position. If we want to have real democracy and help the government to better serve the nation through constructive criticism, the ruling party must give a voice to the opposition and minor groups in the National Assembly.

Will you request help from the international community or from the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Organisation?

No, not yet. Before the inauguration of the new Assembly [Prime Minister Hun Sen] had already promised the Sam Rainsy Party that he will recognise the rights of the opposition. We will give him some time to fulfill this promise.

Hun Sen has also stressed that he would be unhappy if we sought international support. So we tried to address our grievances directly to Assembly President Samdech Heng Samrin, but he keeps answering that we should respect the rules as they are. We will wait until the end of the year.

If they don't offer a solution, we will seek help from the Inter-Parliamentary Organisation and other democrats to defend the right of lawmakers.

If your effort to amend the internal rule fails, what is your next step?

If we cannot speak within the Assembly, we will seek another forum to present our views.

For example, when parliament discusses a law, but we cannot voice our position, we can release statements to the press. We will seek public understanding for our ideas and suggestions through NGO forums and the media. But this is only our last alternative.

If the CPP controls the government, the Assembly and the Senate, and doesn't allow minority representatives to speak, then it encourages demonstrations and protests in the maquis like in the past.

I think they don't reflect enough on this issue. What do they lose if they amend the internal rules and allow others to speak?

Can Cambodia claim it has real freedom of expression?

We have freedom of expression only on the surface, but not in substance.

First, many important channels of information, television and radio, are controlled by the ruling party, even if there are some free media outlets. Second, if they ban the voice of lawmakers, it is even more serious than the freedom of press because the lawmakers are direct representatives of the people.

So, even though the government claims that there is freedom of expression, this is really not the case.

How do you cooperate with the Sam Rainsy Party within the Assembly?

We asked the SRP to speak for us, but we don't want this situation to continue forever. We want to speak for ourselves and have full freedom. The SRP complained too, but when they criticised the government, the CPP threatened the opposition.

To tackle the problem, we have discussed with the SRP to unite into one large opposition and cooperate in debates and in nonviolent protest. In the future, we will unite and create a big party for the next election.

How would you describe the current National Assembly?

The current Assembly is reverting into a Communist assembly, where the state is the party and the party is the state.

The Assembly is controlled by one party, the government is led by one party and the judicial system is controlled by one party.

It is like a communist system, but we will have to see what happens in the future.

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