Democracy in Cambodia Under Pressure, Report Says

Cambodian democracy is suffering as the ruling party undermines freedom of expression and the possibility of debate in the National Assembly, according to a report issued yesterday by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

The report’s findings were flatly rejected by the Assembly’s First Deputy President, Nguon Nhel, who said that Assembly procedures were constitutional and applied on an equitable basis.

Comfrel said the government had also not kept its promises for reforms in areas such as the electoral system, while it had increased pressures on critical civil society groups and members of the media.

“Cambodia’s democratic system currently still suffers from a lot of deficits. Especially, the functioning of the National Assembly is worse than in previous [government] mandates,” Comfrel Director Koul Panha said yesterday.

The Comfrel report called on the government “to reverse course to ensure the rights of all Cambodian are respected” and that “systemic factors” democracy are in place.”

“The government has become increasingly intolerant of the exercise of freedom of expression in criticizing corruption, impunity, land grabbing and forced evictions…. Although parliamentarians have special immunity from prosecution, they too have found their freedom of expression restricted,” the report said.

The committee said that in the three court cases against opposition lawmakers Mu Sochua, Ho Vann and Sam Rainsy, the lawmakers were too easily stripped of their immunity, which occurred in the first two cases without a legal basis.

“In at least two of those cases, an analysis revealed that there is little legal justification for the charges brought against the MPs,” Comfrel said.

Mr Panha said such court cases against lawmakers have limited the Assembly’s ability to function.

“The members of the National Assembly cannot exercise their freedom of expression. They should have immunity…. This is a very serious deficit in 2009,” he said.

The Comfrel report also said the CPP had used its two-thirds majority in September 2008 to push through changes to the Assembly’s internal rules restricting lawmakers’ right to speak.

These rules include a requirement that a group of at least ten lawmakers must be formed before they can be allotted time to join the debate.

Such internal rules along with the CPP’s dominance of all of the Assembly committees curtail debate and marginalize small parties with less than ten seats, according to Comfrel.

The report went on to state that the direct control of the leadership of political parties over the selection of candidates makes MPs “more loyal to the party leadership than to their own constituents” and “has rendered the National Assembly a mere appendage of the executive branch.”

With limited debate and without amendments, the Assembly has in recent months passed important laws including the new penal code, which in part governs freedom of expression, and the Law on Expropriation, which covers the confiscation of land and property to make way for government infrastructure.

The report said the government had lagged on reforms it had promised to make, including resolving voter registration problems which Comfrel said had left 440,000 eligible voters unable to cast their vote during the 2008 national elections.

Mr Panha said members of the Assembly and the National Election Committee had promised during seminars and workshop to reform procedures for the voters and registration lists.

“Later we found they’re not serious about this reform… They must commit to protect voters’ rights,” said Mr Panha.

National Assembly First Deputy President Ngoun Nhel said the Assembly’s internal rules did not put any party at a disadvantage because they applied to all parties in the same way, adding that CPP lawmakers had respected the Constitution when the Assembly introduced internal rules.

“We have the internal rule of law in the Assembly that all the lawmakers have to respect,” he said. “We have our Constitution and according to this law the National Assembly made the internal rules.”

Mr Nhel roundly rejected Comfrel’s statements that the government was suppressing the expression of human rights workers and journalists critical of the government.

“It is not true because everyone is equal before the law. If they wrongly criticize someone they could be sued for defamation or disinformation,” he said.

SRP Secretary-General Ke Vannarath said she had seen Comfrel’s report and agreed with its findings.

“There is no real democracy and freedom of expression in Cambodia because there are many journalists and rights workers who have been put on trial or jailed,” she said.

Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the National Election Committee, brushed off Comfrel’s criticism of the lack of reform of voter registration procedures.

“Comfrel released its demands for election reform but the NEC just follows the law,” he said. ” Comfrel usually complains and I do not comment on what Comfrel reported.”

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