Six members of a National Assembly commission Thursday stalked out of a meeting attended by their outspoken chairman, filed into a room next door, and locked the door.
Then they voted him out of office.
Son Chhay, the ousted chairman, was left at the head of the deserted table, strewn with unopened bottles of water and platters of fresh fruit.
“So here I am, with my two invited guests, and all this fruit,” the Sam Rainsy Party member said, shaking his head in disbelief. He denounced the action as unprecedented, illegal and undemocratic.
It all happened so quickly that the room was emptied before Sam Rainsy Party commission member Monh Siyonn arrived to attend the meeting. Told what was going on, he walked next door and knocked on the door.
“I’ve got my invitation. Why don’t you let me in?” he said plaintively. “Why do you lock the door?”
The door stayed shut.
The extraordinary events occurred at a meeting of the Commission of Public Works, Transport, Telecommunications and Post, Industry, Mines, Energy and Commerce.
The commission was the only one of the assembly’s nine commissions to be headed by a member of the Sam Rainsy Party, whose 15 members make up 12 percent of the National Assembly’s 122 members. King Norodom Sihanouk signed the power-sharing agreement in 1998.
The nine-member commission met Thursday to elect a new chairman. None of the three Sam Rainsy Party members voted. The third SRP member, Lon Phon, was out of town.
The six other members had indicated earlier they intended to strip Son Chhay of his chairmanship. They include CPP members Ho Non, Khiew Hol and Chin Kimsreng and Funcinpec members Kim San, Phan Chantha and Huot Pongly.
Son Chhay contends he is being deposed because he has investigated a number of questionable business deals in recent months, including the $2,500 monthly salary paid by MobiTel to Minister of Posts and Telecommunication So Khun.
Son Chhay has repeatedly raised questions about apparent no-bid contracts on deals ranging from airport renovations in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh to the contract to collect tolls on the US-built National Route 4.
When a reporter arrived at the meeting with Son Chhay, the six members present objected, their faces grim. Deputy chairman Kim San, a Funcinpec legislator who said he was about to become the new chairman, said the agenda involved “internal” matters and was closed to the press.
Son Chhay objected, saying he was still the lawful chairman of the committee and the meeting was open. “There is no regulation that says I, the chairman, can’t invite someone to a meeting,” he insisted.
After several moments of discussion, the six CPP and Funcinpec members got up and marched into Kim San’s office to continue their meeting.
Son Chhay was sitting alone in the original meeting room when Lao Mong Hay, chairman of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, arrived. He said he had come to observe the meeting at Son Chhay’s invitation.
Told what had happened, he looked chagrined. “I’m doubtful about this procedure,” he said. “As the chairman, he has the right to invite people to be present.”
Sam Rainsy Party members Thursday wrote to the Constitutional Council, saying that the attempt to remove Son Chhay was illegal and that government leaders had agreed the opposition should lead one commission to fairly reflect its membership strength in the assembly.
Son Chhay also wrote to National Assembly president Prince Norodom Ranariddh, saying there are no clear rules for how or when a commission chairman can be replaced. He wrote that this situation “is a violation of the law, which will degrade the honor of the National Assembly leaders, and I cannot accept that.”
The Prince could not be reached for comment. Kim San said later the commission had legally removed Son Chhay by a majority vote—and that he can still serve as a member.
“We are not happy with his chairmanship,” said the new chairman. “We want to make the commission more effective.”
If Son Chhay is unhappy with the outcome, Kim San said, he can pursue the matter in court.
“It is his right to do that, because it is the democratic way,” Kim San said.