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The accountability gap

Phan Imex owner Suy Sophan
Phan Imex owner Suy Sophan talks to the media in October after appearing at the National Assembly in regards to the land dispute at Borei Keila. Heng Chivoan

The accountability gap

The growing list of officials summoned for questioning in front of the National Assembly’s commissions is beginning to read like a government who’s who of smouldering social issues in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong – who fended off questions about the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila land disputes in November – is among those grilled since last July’s political deal.

And in coming weeks, Health Minister Mam Bunheng is expected to be summoned over the HIV outbreak in Battambang’s Sangke district.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is trumpeting the work of the revamped commissions for holding officials accountable in a way not done before.

“This mandate is very different, because the CNRP is working to . . . find solutions for people,” said Eng Chhay Eang, head of the human rights commission. “We have shared our concerns [with governors and ministers] and they have brought up their reasons why conflicts are hard to solve. We have . . . warned them not to use force [and] they wouldn’t dare do what they did before.”

But some observers view the flutter of activity inside the commission sessions differently.

“We have a dialogue mechanism, but not a solution mechanism,” said Kem Ley, a longtime analyst who is fast becoming a political figure himself through his fledgling “Khmer for Khmer” movement.

Summoning officials, he added, was pointless without a process to then resolve contentious issues.

“We need resolution [meetings] with civil society and affected families.”

After last year’s political deadlock, the commissions were reformed. Each party now heads five, rather than all being run by the Cambodian People’s Party.

Despite a ruling in September that officials can only be summoned through assembly president and senior CPP lawmaker Heng Samrin, the CNRP says its commission leaders are already effecting change.

“I have sent many letters to ministries [telling] them to identify corruption problems and solve them,” said Ho Vann, head of the Anti-Corruption Commission.

“We give them a time frame to respond to us with a solution. If they do not, we call them for questioning.”

Sngoun Nhoeun is detained by authorities in Kampong Chhnang
Sngoun Nhoeun is detained by authorities in Kampong Chhnang in August, as Lor Peang villages attempted to march to Phnom Penh to raise concerns over a land dispute with KDC International. Heng Chivoan

But, Chhay Eang conceded, many local authorities have “still not solved the problems” the commissions have been trying to address.

Koul Panha, executive of election watchdog NGO Comfrel, believes the commissions will continue to have difficulty asserting authority if sessions remain closed to the public.

“We need to allow media to get in there – at least some core journalists and observers,” he said.

Giving the general public the ability to watch or read about the entire sessions would ensure summoned officials took the process more seriously and were held more accountable, he added.

“It’s about the public interest . . . it should not just be the opposition. It would make a big difference.”

For now, Panha added, at least “they are trying to question the government”.

“Before, this rarely happened. I think it is the start of something positive.”

Calls have also come from the general public this week for the assembly to summon Defence Minister Tea Banh and Interior Minister Sar Kheng over last year’s deadly violence on Veng Sreng Boulevard.

While Banh told the Post on Sunday that he does “not have any duty to clarify this for anyone”, the CNRP’s Yem Ponharith, also a commission head, believes it should be taken even further.

The assembly should hold workshops in which those summoned are required to answer questions from the public, he said.

“I truly believe that we [the CNRP] are bringing historic reform to Cambodia.”

To Ley, the changing nature of the commissions is not a sign of progress but a “CPP game” to appease the international community and the UN.

For villagers involved in a dispute that the human rights commission promised a quick solution to in September, progress is also something they say is lacking.

Sngoun Nhoeun, a representative of Lorpeang villagers in Kampong Chhnang, said their years-long land dispute with the politically connected KDC company remains unresolved.

“The [human rights] commission came to our area early in September and promised to solve our problems within a week,” he said. “However, we have yet to see that change. We are safe from eviction and violence, but we are surrounded by fences. We can’t farm anymore.”

Ny Chakrya, from rights group Adhoc, said it would take time to resolve such issues. “The commissions are meeting with people regularly . . . It is not the same as last time, when the commissions didn’t care,” he said. “If we give them only two or three months to solve problems that have lasted up to 10 years, it is not fair.”

Foreign Affairs commission head Chheang Vun, from the CPP, declined to comment about the current commissions.

“It is not a good idea to compare what the [CNRP] has done and what we have done . . . We remain proud of what [the CPP] has achieved [in the assembly],” he said.

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