The National Assembly convened its first session of 2006 on Tuesday and restored parliamentary immunity to three Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers, in what Prime Minister Hun Sen called “the best day in the history of the democratic process.”
Speaking after a rare cordial meeting of Parliament, Hun Sen spoke of national reconciliation and promised that on Thursday the Assembly will debate a constitutional amendment that would reduce the amount of lawmakers needed to form a government, and also vote on whether to adopt it.
“Since 1993 until today, I think today is the best day in the history of the democratic process,” Hun Sen told reporters in front of the National Assembly.
Forgoing debate, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh went straight to a vote on the restoration of parliamentary immunity to opposition leader Sam Rainsy and lawmakers Chea Poch and Cheam Channy, who were stripped of their rights in a vote by the Assembly in February 2005.
Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch fled the country following that vote, while Cheam Channy was arrested and jailed for one year for forming a so-called illegal armed force.
On Tuesday, however, the parliamentarians voted unanimously to restore to the three lawmakers all the privileges of office.
“This is a historical event that we should remember,” Hun Sen said. “I want that kind of environment: The three political parties will follow this way to unite in strength.”
Sam Rainsy called the move a sign that parliamentarians are embracing the spirit of national reconciliation.
“I am sure that this spirit will continue to prevail for the good of the country,” he said after the vote.
Hun Sen said Parliament had not restored the lawmakers’ immunity to satisfy donors ahead of the Consultative Group meeting, which starts on Thursday.
“The national interest is not only for the CG meeting; the national interest is for 100 and 2,000 years,” he said.
But Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, warned that the conciliatory move, occurring so close to the CG meeting, could not necessarily be interpreted as a sea change.
“The government right now has the will to compromise only 40 percent—but because of the donors’ presence, it acts as if it will compromise 60 percent,” he said.
“We have to continue to watch,” Hang Puthea added.
Hun Sen said he will attend Thursday’s CG meeting, but will leave to attend the Assembly discussion on the proposed amendment to the Constitution. He said he was optimistic the amendment would be passed.
The change, which Sam Rainsy proposed in a Feb 13 letter to Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh, would reduce the number of lawmakers needed to form a government from two-thirds of Assembly seats to 50 percent plus one.
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An will represent the government in defending the proposal, Hun Sen said, adding that he expects debate to be minimal. “The process of amending the Constitution is not difficult because the three political parties already agree,” Hun Sen said.
Hang Puthea said the amendment would likely prevent the lengthy deadlocks that have plagued past elections. He added that it could also be an impetus to break off the coalition between the ruling CPP and Funcinpec.
Funcinpec lawmaker Monh Sophan said the proposed formula will create greater risks for each party, but could present great opportunities.
“It is not a disaster for Funcinpec party. It is a knife with two edges,” Monh Sophan said.
“Every political party wants to have sole power,” he said.