Five Years Wasted?

First National Assembly Fails to Pass Key Laws, Hurt by Inefficiency

The good news is that no one was killed on the National Assembly floor.

That is, in many ways, a significant ac­complishment. Unlike many fledgling governments (in the 1850s, a US Congress­man beat another bloody with his cane) and even in some governments today (parliamentarians in South Korea brawled in a recent session), Cambodia’s National Assembly left the bloodshed at the parliament’s gates.

“Even though there were arguments, people took their turns and there was no name calling,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “There was no violence. I must congratulate the MPs for orderly conducting of parliamentary business.”

That may have been the highlight for the Cambodian body meant to create laws, represent the people and provide a balance to the power of the prime ministers.

The nation is still waiting for a legal foundation upon which a civil society can be built. The National Assembly delayed action on many key pieces of legislation for years—or didn’t act at all. Most draft laws reached the 120 lawmakers only after first getting approved at the Council of Min­isters, where partisan politics dominated and the crucial decisions were made.

Critics said indecision and a lack of vision mired the fledgling body’s first five years. Special interests and self-interest took preference over the common good. Every political party had a piece of the government, and thus there were no true opposition parliamentarians to question government actions, they said.

But the Assembly’s defenders counter that too many expected too much from parliamentarians who had hardly any experience in government. The first five years built a structure for debate and the institution of the Assembly itself, they said. That itself was an accomplishment.

“It was a good start. It was a starting point,” said Tol Lah, Funcinpec’s secretary-general and the education minister in the government. “This is an institution-building process.”

The 1993 Assembly was the country’s first attempt at a truly democratic parliament. While there was some dissent, King Noro­dom Sihanouk and his Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime in the ’50s dominated the political stage. Lon Nol’s Khmer republic and the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea offered no choices. The Vietnamese-occupied People’s Republic of Kampuchea offered several candidates to choose from, but they were all from the same political party.

Following years of war, fighting factions agreed in 1991 to an outline for government known as the Paris Peace Accords. The accords mandated UN-sponsored elections in 1993, which were followed by the ratification of the Constitution and the birth of the Na­tional Assembly.

In the beginning, the Assembly did have a mandate. The body had to establish the Con­stitutional Council and pass a series of basic laws—property legislation and business codes, among others—meant to put the society on its feet and on the road to development.

In this respect, the Assembly flopped. After ratifying the Constitution in September 1993, the Assembly waited seven months before discussing legislation. But the investment code, considered critical legislation that was brought up in those first sessions, was quickly postponed and its completion dragged on. Property laws to this day remain incomplete. There is no comprehensive criminal code. The Constitutional Council, which will review the constitutionality of legislation, was finally cobbled together just before the July elections under heavy political pressure.

A lack of uniform criminal, civil and commercial laws kept Cambodia from becoming a safe and a coherent society, Lao Mong Hay charges. Everyday citizens, as well as businesses, have trouble determining what land is truly theirs, and that slows development, he said.

With this type of muddling-through mentality, parliamentarians gave in to an array of special interests ranging from NGOs and academics to businessmen and governments, Lao Mong Hay said.

“If invest­ors wanted a business code they got a business code,” he said. “If the US wanted drug trafficking laws they got drug trafficking laws. One foreign expert wanted abortion laws, to make abortions legal. He got that.”

Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, said Friday that politicians simply became a “voice of the powerful.”

“Some of the laws were from the view of the politicians, or from the view of their political parties’ interest,” Chea Vannath said. “They did not look at it from the social point of view.

“They used laws to protect the powerful, not to protect the poor and vulnerable or the well-being of the helpless.”

Passing the laws themselves was a brutal affair, experts and Assembly bureaucrats said. Because of collusion or a lack of time, the expulsion of former finance minister Sam Rainsy, the law outlawing the Khmer Rouge, electoral legislation, the press law and the Constitutional Council were all passed without adequate debate on the Assembly floor, they said.

It sometimes took months for a law to wind its way from the general secretary’s office to the Standing Committee and then to several other offices before reaching the National Assembly. Often, the Standing Committee would attach a deadline to legislation and sometimes—many said for purely political advantage—only a few days were left for National As­sembly debate.

Some parliamentarians, many of whom would see the draft laws only when they hit the Assembly floor, went scurrying for advisers to sort through the proposal. Others didn’t bother to learn about the legislation they were voting on, critics say.

Short on information and ill-informed, debates often bogged down on technical aspects of a given draft and constructive discussion about a law’s intent and impact on society, never took place. Several experts noted the problems with the election law: a lack of debate caused later controversies, including the still-running dispute of the National Assembly seat formula.

“We adopted many laws, but there were some discussions to me that were not appropriate,” said Nady Tan, secretary general of the Council of Ministers and former Funcin­pec member who later helped form the Reastr Niyum Party. “Many times we’d spend too much time on words, on the construction of sentences…. We’d discuss whether to use ‘I’ or ‘we.’ ”

Nady Tan said party interest came before the national interest. Lao Mong Hay said Funcinpec and the CPP were “hand-in-glove” in the early parts of the Assembly, and party leaders imposed their will on their parliamentarians, making the body a “rubber stamp.” Others said top party officials would privately meet before Assembly sessions to hammer out disagreements so there would be no public debate.

When the National Assembly unanimously stripped Prince Norodom Sirivudh in 1995 of his parliamentary immunity—preceding his current exile—Funcinpec members said they were ordered by then-First Prime Minister Nordom Rana­riddh to vote yes.

“I wanted to vote otherwise, but I knew if I did that I would be finished with Funcinpec,” one member said the day of the vote.

Chea Vannath said the National Assembly went through three phases. Members of all four political parties represented in the Nat-ional Assembly made an honest attempt at establishing an independent law-making body during its first two years, but then fell under “complete government control” from 1995 through 1997. In late 1997 and in 1998, she said, a handful of As­semblymen like Thach Reng “expressed their political will at the risk of their own lives.”

“Things quickly became divided among political parties,” Chea Vannath said. “Either [parliamentarians] were under the control of their own political parties or they were co-opted by bigger parties like the CPP.”

Political analyst Raoul Jennar, however, maintained that constructive debate was a regular part of the Assembly. He noted there were 414 pages of discussion about the first press law, and that the draft election legislation was drastically different from the final version that passed.

“Sometimes, they failed to ask the right questions, this is true,” Jennar said. “But they asked many questions.”

Many said the Assembly lost credibility after the July 1997 factional fighting that ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Gun battles, extrajudicial killings and a general climate of fear and impunity choked off debate, Lao Mong Hay and others said. But Jennar argues there was still open debate on the floor. The Assembly has over the past five years rejected legislation submitted by the government. He notes former Thach Reng’s statements against Hun Sen days after the factional fighting, when bodies of executed Funcinpec police and army officers and bodyguards were being unearthed by human rights investigators.

After July 1997, “everyone who wanted to express an opinion was free to do so,” Jennar said.

Chan Van (CPP), deputy secretary general of the National Assembly, blamed the parliament’s quorum requirements for slowing legislative action. Two-thirds of the Assembly is required to simply hold a meeting—quorums in most country are usually only required to have a vote. That rule hobbled the Assembly after July 1997, Chan Van said.

He also said the Assembly was also slowed on finishing its original mandate because of the time it took establishing election laws.

What most critics agreed on was the Assembly simply lacked an opposition that could watch the government. With Funcinpec and the CPP running ministries, and the BLDP in tatters after a party split, there was no group that would challenge government authority, experts charge.

In his book “Cambodia’s New Deal,” scholar William Shawcross said after the first year the assembly wasn’t serving as a proper balance to the two prime ministers, at the time Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Compromise, even to the extreme, was tolerated.

“Under the policy of ‘national reconciliation,’ no real opposition has emerged in the National Assembly,” Shawcross wrote. “Indeed, the concept of a ‘loyal Opposition’ was, understandably, still remote to most Cambodians. Instead, reconciliation became the rationalization for all compromise.”

Jennar said if the Sam Rainsy Party could stay develop into a true opposition party outside of a Funcinpec-CPP coalition, it would be a “historic” stepping-stone toward real democracy.

These critiques stung some in the Assembly. Supporters of the body’s first five years said parliamentarians were unfamiliar with the workings of government after years of being everything from rebels to businessmen. They also lacked the resources that many countries have, they said.

“In many countries, MPs have one office in [the capital] and one in their constituencies,” Tol Lah said. “They have experts they have technical staff to work with them. They have equipment. They have human resources. We had none of that.

“Members of the national assembly have no experience,” Tol Lah said. “The ones that did had experience in a socialist regime. We were not used to a national assembly functioning under these conditions.”

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, the secretary of state for information and a CPP National Assemblyman, said the parliament’s efforts to build its internal structure and establish rules of conduct meant it defied a “rubber stamp” label.

Chan Van said the country was improved by infrastructure projects launched by individual Assembly members. “They contributed in their own constituencies,” he said. “They built schools, roads and other infrastructure items.”

But after five years, the Assembly’s mandate remains the same: create a uniform criminal, civil and commercial codes starting with basic property and criminal laws. The National Congress, a nonbinding body of government outlined in the Constitution where citizens stand up and voice concerns, needs to be established.

There are some efforts to eliminate the excess debate. National Assembly Legal Adviser Chhim Phalvorun said he will propose all legislation go to a committee of legal experts to remove any conflicts of law or procedure. Doing this would allow assembly members to spend their time discussing the substance of the laws, Chhim Phalvorun said. A handful of new parliamentarians said they are interested in the idea, he said.

Chea Vannath said she wanted a stronger Assembly in order to better balance the executive branch of the prime minister and see parliamentarians “break free of each of their political leaders.”.

Lao Mong Hay said parliamentarians rarely called for public testimony from ministers, police officials or the military about new laws or major gaffes, and that would be a welcome sight in the new Assembly. For example, Shawcross noted in “Cambodia’s New Deal” that the Assembly never discussed the country’s military humiliation by the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng in 1994.

Nady Tan were hoping for some sort of goal-setting, like a five-year plan, to address the country’s problems and form complete criminal, commercial and civil laws. Chan Van hoped international treaties would be included in the Assembly’s first legislation.

“I pray,” said Nady Tan. “I just hope they do their best work. Cambodia is poor enough.”

(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Konstantin Richter)



Related Stories

Exit mobile version