King Norodom Sihamoni, in an opening speech on Monday to Cambodia’s newly minted Senate, urged the legislative body to uphold human rights and justice.
King Sihamoni warmly congratulated the 62-member Senate on its new mandate following almost a year of what observers have described as political turmoil and a clampdown on the free press and civil society.
“The Senate of the Kingdom of Cambodia walks on the path of peace and development under the constitutional monarchy regime, and liberal multiparty democracy is going smoothly,” the King said.
“Political parties, media and civil society have more opportunity to express or reflect their opinion openly . . . The Senate must ensure it protects justice and respects human rights in order to create long term harmony in our society.”
Former Senate President Say Chhum was re-elected unopposed as president in a unanimous vote, as were Senate deputy presidents Nai Pena and Tep Ngon. Chhum thanked the new senators for his re-election and said the body would “work hard in strengthening and building our Cambodian rule of law, in an atmosphere of friendship and solidarity”.
King Sihamoni went on to say that the Senate – which has been described by analysts as a “rubber stamp” body to approve problematic legislation – has cooperated with the National Assembly “to build better laws in order to respond only to the requirements of the people and our whole nation”.
Last year, the Senate swiftly passed amendments to the Law on Political Parties that sidelined the opposition and made it possible to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party before the upcoming election in July.
The Kingdom also recently passed contentious lèse majesté laws, making it a criminal offence to insult the King with a penalty of three to five years in prison.
The long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party made a clean sweep of all 58 elected Senate seats in a February election that excluded the former CNRP – which had been the only viable competitor to the CPP. Two royalist Funcinpec members were appointed by the National Assembly, along with two royal picks by the King.
Former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy said the formation of the new Senate was part of the “destruction of democracy in Cambodia, with the country painfully returning to a one-party system”.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said “anyone wanting justice and human rights from this Senate is going to be sorely disappointed”.
“The reality is under PM Hun Sen’s rule, the Senate has become a legislative joke, full of political cronies who can be counted on to vote any way the government wants, and receive an honorific title and nice salary for doing little or no work,” he said in an email.
Despite the King’s call for “unity”, CPP spokesman and new Senator Sok Eysan said on Monday that he would not cooperate with “prisoners” – an apparent reference to the CNRP – and shrugged off criticisms of the Senate.
“It’s like in the Khmer proverb: the dogs are barking, but people keep walking,” he said.