BEING oldest in Cambodia may never have been so important, or so exhausting.
The CPP's march toward securing control of the Constitutional Council ahead of the
July elections is putting heat on three respected elder-statesmen, and may have spurred
one - a 92-year-old - to flee the country.
Age is important under the Constitutional Council law which requires that the eldest
or second eldest member of the nine-member council convene or preside over a meeting
of at least seven members.
Setting up what may be the last major procedural battle ahead of elections, three
of Cambodia's most elder statesmen - King Norodom Sihanouk's representatives to the
nation's final constitutional and electoral arbiter - declined to allow the council
to convene on June 3 as requested by six CPP-appointees.
The council is widely-seen by the international community as a key part of the electoral
infrastructure for acceptable elections.
These three eldest members of the Constiutional Council have effectively refused
to allow the convening of the council, two of them say it is because many of its
members do not have the stature or the legal right to sit on the council.
The two eldest council members refused outright to attend any meeting that includes
members recently chosen by the National Assembly and the Supreme Council of Magistracy,
with the 92-year-old dean Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum fleeing to Bangkok on June 2 and
alleging he was coerced into calling for the June 3 convening of the council.
"On the 29th of May, under pressure from very high-ranking government officials
who picked me up from my house without telling me their purpose, I signed a letter
convening today the first meeting of the Constitutional Council," according
to a June 3 signed statement faxed to Reuters.
"I have since renounced that letter and explained my reasons in my statement
from June 2. My view, directed by my conscience, is that several of the supposed
members of the Constitutional Council have been appointed illegally and that the
[June 3] meeting, and any meeting with these members, is invalid," he wrote.
"In order to avoid pressure that I am sure would be applied to me to convene
and preside over the meeting, I left Cambodia on June 2, 1998," the statement
In his absence, under Article 39 of the Law on the Organization and Functioning of
the Constitutional Council, the stewardship of the council falls on the next eldest
member, former BLDP president Son Sann, but he too has refused to be involved with
a council he considers illegitimate.
The 86-year-old Son Sann explained in a May 31 letter to the King that he would not
attend the June 2 swearing in ceremony at the Royal Palace nor take part in the activities
of the council.
"I remind you that with numerous other official compatriots, in the presence
of Your Majesty, we have sworn before the throne the solemn [and] detailed Praneythean
sermon. Under threat of perjury, I cannot accept to swear [the Constitutional Council]
oath... for an illegal cause," the King's 1980s resistance ally wrote.
In a previous May 20 letter, written several days before the King signed decrees
naming the six newly-appointed officials to the council, Son Sann highlighted numerous
alleged procedural violations and irregularities in their selection by the National
Assembly and the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
"It is now known how the members of the National Assembly and those of the Supreme
Council of Magistracy are named. They are all members of the same political party
(CPP)," Son Sann added.
The three Constitutional Council members appointed by the National Assembly were
Yang Som, Binh Chhin and Top Sam, while the three appointed by the Supreme Council
of Magistracy were Prak Sok, Chan Sok and Thor Peng Leath. All are considered close
to the CPP.
Son Sann and Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum are among a number of legal officials and observers
who questioned the magistracy council's three appointments, alleging that Cabinet
Minister Sok An interfered with judicial independence by convening the meeting in
place of absent and ailing Justice Minister Chem Snguon. Under law, that job should
have fallen to Justice Ministry Secretary of State Uk Vithun, of Funcinpec.
Sok An has made clear he feels those who criticize him do not understand the law.
One of his advisers claimed that the separation of powers in the Constitution only
prevents Sok An and Assembly President Chea Sim from wielding positions in two branches
of government at the same time, but not on different days.
"Everything is decided by the Supreme Council of Magistracy," said Svay
Sitha, Sok An's aide. "What we have done has nothing to do with the Constitutional
Council. The King named Chea Sim to fill in for him, Chea Sim gave the green light
to Sok An."
Critics of the selection process also claimed that the magistracy council should
have faced a quorum problem as seven out of the nine people on that council were
supposed to be present without conflicts of interest.
Son Sann also claimed that some Assembly appointees to the Constitutional Council
do not have the educational backgrounds required for the job, even though their resumes
which were available to the Assembly said they do.
With two of the King's nominees removing themselves from the picture, increased attention,
and possibly pressure, is falling on his junior representatives, Pung Peng Cheng,
81, who is far older than any of the other six members.
While Peng Cheng attended the June 3 meeting, he declined attempts by the other six
members to convince him to preside over the council as the next eldest member, saying
their three-plus hour conversation was just "an informal chat".
"Those present discussed choosing me as chairman, but I have not yet agreed,"
he said immediately after the meeting, which he called "not official".
Responding to questions from reporters, Cheng said no date has been set for the actual
convening of the council.
Council member Prak Sok told the Post that Peng Chheng had "convened a meeting
of the Council" for June 5 and claimed the third eldest member of the council
is ready to replace Cocsal Chhum as dean if he does not show up at the next meeting.
At press time it appeared doubtful Peng Cheng would agree to replace Cocsal Chhum
at the June 5 meeting as he had already rejected attempts by other members to give
him the position on June 3. Peng Cheng was non-committal in a brief statement given
to the Post later in the day. "We will see. I am thinking about it," he
If Peng Cheng does not attend and the council is paralyzed, three of Cambodia's eldest
figures may prove able to obtain concessions the opposition was unable to secure:
a substantial reversal of CPP victories in consolidating their hold on the electoral
By staying home on June 5 the three seniors can make their stand, Son Sann seemed
to say in another May 20 letter to the King.
"The Constitutional Council must guarantee respect for the Constitution of the
Kingdom, and in particular will decide on the legality of the next legislative elections.
"The question must be asked: How can an illegal Constitutional Council decide
on the legality of the next legislative elections?"