The Cambodian Bar Association—an independent lawyers’ guild that some members say is becoming increasingly political—is scheduled to elect a president for its sixth mandate on Saturday.
Incumbent Ky Tech, whose presidency has been marked by the gain of support from numerous foreign bar associations and the granting of bar membership to high-ranking CPP officials who lack actual law degrees, is running for his second term.
The four challengers are Suon Visal of the nonprofit Cambodian Defenders Project; Puth Theavy, whose clients include former Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin; Som Chandyna, whose clients include opposition leader Sam Rainsy; and Nou Tepirith of an independent firm.
Speaking on Wednesday, a day before the end of the official campaign period, Ky Tech pointed to donations, which flowed in from sponsors during his presidency, as achievements.
“My mandate’s accomplishments included acquiring a building for our bar association. Before our bar association rented, and the government supported us with 250 million riel a year (about $62,500). Now we also have two vans with 12 seats donated by the government,” Ky Tech said.
The CPP-controlled Council of Ministers gave the bar association its new office building, along with about $50,000. Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated the office on Sept 16, the day after he joined the bar, despite holding only an honorary law doctorate.
Critics point to these gifts and the membership of Hun Sen and three other CPP officials as evidence of the politicization of the lawyers’ guild.
One well-known lawyer has said that personal donations from top CPP officials to the bar association have increased during Ky Tech’s mandate.
Ky Tech also said he plans to establish the bar’s provincial offices in his second term. “We are looking for jobs for 130 new lawyers to work in the provincial branches, and if I win one more term, I will create the training center for lawyers, which the government promised to give land for,” he said.
Speaking at the inauguration of the bar association’s office, Hun Sen offered real estate and solicited donations from foreign nations to construct a new compound to house the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the Appeals Court, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Council and the bar association—a grouping that is too cozy for those who would like to see Cambodia’s bar be more independent.
Ky Tech’s challengers for the presidency all hit on similar points, but Som Chandyna sounded strongest on the issue of professional independence.
“My principle rule is to support our lawyers’ independence. We have to work to reform our bar association to avoid pressure from any party,” he said Wednesday.
Som Chandyna also pointed to a legal system in need of reform, in which unqualified, unlicensed parties regularly handle cases for their personal gain, cheating lawyers out of work.
Suon Visal and Nou Tepirith, speaking separately on Thursday, focused on the livelihood and well-being of Cambodia’s lawyers.
They said that, because its members are not allowed to advertise, the bar association needs to market them fairly, enabling them to build up their clientele.
Suon Visal said he would also slash members’ dues from $50 every three months to $30 every three months.
Nou Tepirith also raised the need for legal aid, a scarce service that poor Cambodians find mostly in institutions like Suon Visal’s NGO.
“There is still a lack of support and cooperation for legal aid from the court and government,” Nou Tepirith said.
Puth Theavy, like all the others, said he would continue forging alliances with foreign bar associations that could provide assistance to the Cambodian Bar Association.
He, too, spoke of protecting the independence and interests of Cambodian attorneys and sending lawyers to the provinces.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, this election campaign was an improvement from past ones, Suon Visal said.
“We had public debate and allowed all the lawyers to ask about everything concerning the bar and tell the real bar policies,” he said, adding, “I hope this vote will be better than before.”
(Additional reporting by Porter Barron)