As a democratically elected representative of the people, I am deeply concerned by the course of events that has led to the abolition of the majority and minority groups in our National Assembly on January 31.
Of particular concern is the fact that the motion put forward for this vote in parliament was initiated and orchestrated by the head of the executive branch, thereby undermining the separation of powers that is crucial to the success of democratic governance.
Building democracy is, of course, a continuing process, which often sees societies take a step back for every two steps forward. But at this crucial moment, with our democratic institutions seemingly on life-support, we cannot afford such a huge step backward.
The official recognition of the majority and minority groups in the National Assembly and the associated culture of dialogue between the Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party were the results of political negotiations that ended months of tensions following the 2013 parliamentary elections.
The agreed-upon arrangement was premised on both sides accepting two fundamental democratic principles: recognition of the power and position of the ruling party and respect for the rights and freedoms of a loyal opposition.
The deal and the short-lived culture of dialogue it spawned produced some significant achievements: reform of the National Election Commission that strengthened its independence; amendments to the Election Law that supported freer and fairer votes; equal representation for both parties on parliamentary commissions to ensure for accountable legislative action; and a commitment to bring cabinet members before parliament to answer questions every Thursday based on guarantees included in Article 96 of the Constitution.
The majority and minority groups were formed through similar compromise, and both parties agreed that each group would be represented by its own leader. Collectively, these changes forged a path toward strengthening the National Assembly as an institution and a fundamental pillar of democracy. But now, through the National Assembly’s most recent actions at the behest of the executive branch, that path is being thwarted.
Majority rule affords the winner of an election the power to implement its political platform and policies in order to address public needs and protect the nation as a whole. But in a democracy, majority rule is subject to a system of checks and balances, which help to safeguard minority rights and freedoms.
Business inside the National Assembly should be conducted through a system of dialogue and debate, pursuant to existing rules that uphold the basic principles of democracy. Compromises are inevitable and, indeed, important. But abolishing full representation for the opposition does not constitute a compromise; it constitutes a power grab and a serious challenge to democracy.
As representatives of the people, members of parliament must be allowed to exercise their fundamental rights to free speech and expression in the context of deliberation and debate over legislation. Parliamentary immunity, designed to safeguard these rights, must not be violated.
Lawmakers must be allowed to fully represent those who elected them, and in no way should an elected representative be arbitrarily punished or prosecuted for expressing his or her views. It is a grave threat to democratic norms when lawmakers are consistently at risk from physical attacks and arbitrary prosecution despite the protection of parliamentary immunity.
We must work towards a spirit of tolerance and respect for the views and opinions of political opponents. Only in undemocratic societies is social order interpreted to mean a requirement for absolute obedience. Today, however, I fear we are moving closer toward an environment where intolerance reigns, and where all dissent is quashed to the detriment of, not only the dissenters, but society as a whole.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Today, the growth of Cambodia’s true democratic spirit is at stake.
Mu Sochua is a member of the National Assembly of Cambodia from the Cambodia National Rescue Party.