In the first test of new, wide-reaching rules that give National Assembly President Heng Samrin the power to decide who is allowed to enter the assembly grounds, a prominent government critic was allowed to meet with the parliamentary Anti-Corruption Commission on Friday.
In a circular dated September 12 and signed by Mr. Samrin, the assembly president gave himself exclusive control over who can enter the parliament compound, attend commission hearings or even meet with individual lawmakers. The circular had cast into doubt the likelihood of a meeting scheduled for Friday between Preap Kol, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia (TI), and members of the assembly’s Anti-Corruption Commission, headed by CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann.
But the meeting went ahead unimpeded Friday because, according to Mr. Vann, he received endorsement for the meeting from National Assembly leadership on September 10, following existing procedures that require Mr. Samrin’s authorization for guests to attend commission hearings.
The new circular says that commissions should, in the future, seek input from civil society groups in a less direct manner.
“The commissions can ask the public or civil society for their opinions from a distance, but they are not authorized to attend the commissions’ meetings,” it says.
However, in Friday’s meeting with the new anti-graft body, Mr. Kol was able to make his case for why there needed to be more transparency in government, he told reporters outside the assembly.
“When there is transparency spreading throughout society, automatically, corruption will be reduced. But now we are in darkness, a lot of information is hidden and we find it hard to get information,” he said.
Mr. Kol said he and the lawmakers discussed the need for a freedom of information law, which CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said last year would be drafted by the Ministry of Information and passed this year. After being made public earlier this week, Mr. Samrin’s circular has drawn heavy criticism from opposition lawmakers and democracy advocates.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Friday that the new rules were drafted without consultation and “without warning.”
“The president of the National Assembly signed the circular himself—there is no consensus with the standing committee through the National Assembly,” he said.
“If we respect the circular, it means [the assembly’s powers] will be more narrow, because we joined the National Assembly to be the place, the mother, of democracy in Cambodia. We want the National Assembly to be the place for the people to debate to express their concerns to their representatives,” Mr. Sovann said.
Laura Thornton, country director of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, said via email that the circular “is a setback for the parliamentary reforms promised during the political negotiations and to the public at large.”
“If the intent, as it is being understood, is to further limit public participation in their legislative body, further consolidate oversight in the power of the president, and limit flexibility of commission chairs, then Cambodia’s National Assembly would be falling short of international standards for open parliamentary practices,” Ms. Thornton said.
CPP lawmakers could not be reached for comment.