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The rules of engagement

Lawmakers and senior officials attend a session of parliament at the National Assembly last year
Lawmakers and senior officials attend a session of parliament at the National Assembly last year. A new directive states that permission is needed to summons people for questioning.

The rules of engagement

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday said he supported the summoning of government ministers for questioning by National Assembly commissions, as it allowed for problems between the ruling and opposition parties to be solved in parliament instead of in the streets.

But his conciliatory words came amid opposition and civil society outcry over a recent circular from National Assembly President Heng Samrin that seemingly lays down restrictive rules on those same commissions.

Political commentators say the rules outlined in the circular, which was published on September 12 but only emerged publicly yesterday, could effectively quash the opposition’s power in parliament.

According to the circular, the 10 commissions – half of which are now headed by the opposition under a July deal struck with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, but contain members of both parties – need “internal agreement” before summoning ministers or government representatives.

Commissions also need to ask Hun Sen, via Samrin, to invite those called before the assembly, rather than being able to do so directly.

The circular also states they need permission from Samrin before inviting members of the public, civil society groups or outside experts to the assembly, and that no outsiders, including media, may observe the questioning of ministers.

But yesterday, Hun Sen delivered a more harmonious message in public. Speaking at the launch of the National Strategic Development Plan for 2014-2018, he said he supported the questioning of ministers in parliament and told his underlings to go without fear.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron was questioned after being summoned by a commission led by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

“I want this process to continue. Every excellency does not need to ask the prime minister whether they can go or not,” the premier said.

“When the National Assembly’s commissions or the National Assembly [as a body] summons [a minister] for questioning, they have to go and there is no need to ask the prime minister how to answer the questions.”

Despite the premier’s words, the CNRP said the recent circular would compromise the assembly’s role as a “place for democratic debate”.

“According to this directive, everything we [do], we have to ask permission from the president of the National Assembly, and everybody knows the president of the National Assembly is a CPP leader,” CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said.

He added that the circular had not been approved by the standing committee of parliament, where the matter will be now raised by CNRP members.

Political commentator and Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak was more scathing.

“This has taken away any hope that the opposition can do anything in the parliament,” he said.

With the CNRP now having power in the assembly, vague internal parliamentary rules were “bound to be interpreted in a very restrictive way by the CPP”, he added.

Even if the assembly president did allow ministers to be questioned, the fact that this would occur behind closed doors would render the process useless to the public, Virak said.

“What’s the use if you embarrass them in front of four other CPP members?”

Koul Panha, executive director at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), said his organisation was studying the circular, which he said gave Samrin “CEO-like” powers in parliament.

“This is really [giving] control over the commissions’ power,” he said, adding that the CPP had jumped the gun ahead of internal rule amendments meant to be made by both parties.

“They should talk before issuing this circular. They promised to do that, according to the political [agreement].”

A number of senior CPP lawmakers and assembly spokespeople could not be reached for comment yesterday.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA

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