Kek Galabru remembers then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s joy at watching his top ministers suffer as rice farmers criticized and questioned the way the government worked.
That was in the 1950s and 1960s, when Prince Sihanouk held a three-day National Congress every December—just after the wet season rice harvest. People from all walks of life lined up at the Royal Palace to air their grievances to the Sangkum Reastr Niyum government.
Officials had to clarify or answer whatever was brought up by the public. The Prince would issue decrees on the spot. And sometimes, officials were forced to resign.
“Sihanouk was delighted to give this opportunity to the people and to see the members of government shaking. It was free. People really came with their problems….Local government officials were so scared of the National Congress because everyone had the freedom of expression,” Galabru, who founded the human rights group Licadho, said.
All that ended with the 1970 Lon Nol coup and the civil wars that followed. But the idea of an annual national public hearing was revived during the upbeat period after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and was written into the 1993 constitution.
The congress is a form of direct democracy that could, and should, be used today, said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy.
Despite requests from NGOs and opposition leader Sam Rainsy —and despite the fact that the park across from the National Assembly and the Royal Palace is often filled with people who say they have been forced from their land by local authorities—the congress has never been held.
“It would play into the hands of some politicians. Look at the history….It would not be appropriate,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
But such an institution, if it were to see the light of day, could reduce public demonstrations by providing an outlet for Cambodians to speak directly and formally to the government, some observers say.
“The voiceless do not have the means to express themselves and their frustrations. It is very dangerous. We don’t want to have an explosion of violence and anger from the public against the government,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
Article 128 of the constitution states that the National Congress “shall enable the people to be directly informed on various matters of national interest and to raise issues and requests for the State authority to solve.”
Articles 129 and 130 state that the congress will meet once a year in early December “at the convocation of the prime minister” and will be chaired by the King. Government officials and the National Assembly are to consider recommendations made by the congress.
Some unofficial public hearings have been held since 1993. In the mid-1990s, Son Sann Party member and National Assembly human rights commission chairman Kem Sokha organized provincial gatherings. But often, local authorities wouldn’t show up, according to Kek Galabru.
The Center for Social Development has held several public forums in recent years on subjects ranging from education to labor disputes to the reintegration of former Khmer Rouge cadre.
Even King Sihanouk held a small public hearing in 1994, in which Kandal province villagers claimed their land had been illegally seized and Phsar Olympic vendors complained officials were charging thousands of dollars for stalls the vendors had used for free since the 1980s.
But what was missing from all of these was the legitimacy that the presence of a high government official would bring, Chea Vannath said.
For the King to hold an audience today similar to what was held in the 1960s would be impossible, she said. The King just doesn’t have the authority to call ministers to come, and the government doesn’t have the political will to initiate a National Congress.
“The King doesn’t want to confront the government. It is an uneasy situation for him,” she said.
While the government has been occupied with achieving stability and security in recent years, the fact that it is finally organizing next year’s much-delayed commune elections could mean the government is now willing to take democracy to the people in several ways, said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“The process of democracy is not an easy task. We started it some time ago. But we are improving,” he said.
If a National Congress is ever held, the government should let all the people come, and not select only those who will raise small issues, Kek Galabru said. The fact that state-run television edited out strong opinions voiced against the government before broadcasting the Center for Social Development’s Khmer Rouge forums last year shows such selective choosing is a possibility.
“I don’t want to see the National Congress as a show-off, a window dressing. It shouldn’t be just to show the international community that we are a democratic country,” Galabru said.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)