Kem Sokha Takes on CPP Candidate in Live Debate

National Assembly candidates from the country’s two main political parties faced off Wednesday in what is set to be the only televised debate during the campaign period before the parliamentary election on July 28.

The town-hall style debate, in which Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy president Kem Sokha and CPP lawmaker Sok Eysan answered questions from the audience of about 200 voters, was recorded Wednesday morning and is scheduled to be broadcast on state-owned TVK this weekend.

Mr. Sokha and Mr. Eysan were joined in the debate by Huot Rik Chamroeun, the president of the Economic Development Party. Another debate was held Wednesday afternoon with representatives of the Funcinpec Party, the Republican Democratic Party and the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party.

During the debate, Mr. Sokha and Mr. Eysan, who each wore dark blue suits, ties and gold-rimmed glasses for the event, responded to questions about how—if elected—their administration would deal with the problems of corruption, illegal immigration, youth unemployment, human rights abuses, rising national debt and economic inequality.

Asked about how the CPP, in its fifth mandate, would tackle corruption, Mr. Eysan said the problem of corruption was over­blown by opposition politicians, but nonetheless laid out a three-step strategy to fight potential graft within the government.

“The CPP has continued implementing a policy to curb and eliminate corruption by relying on three core measures: first, educating and disseminating information; second, preventing corruption; and third, arresting corrupt individuals and sending them to court,” he said.

Mr. Eysan, a parliamentary candidate in Prey Veng province, added that high levels of international aid and loans were proof that the international community had faith in the CPP to manage Cambodia’s finances.

“If Cambodia has a serious issue with corruption like some politicians say, none of the positive achievements of the past would have occurred,” he said, noting that while much of the world saw their economies shrink during the global recession, Cambodia’s maintained modest growth.

“When there was a global economic downturn, Cambodia’s economy remained at .01 percent growth while other countries fell below zero,” he said, adding that economic growth in 2012 was above 7 percent.

In response, Mr. Sokha noted that it was not only opposition politicians, but international donors, NGOs and the general public who have cited corruption as a major obstacle to Cambodia’s development.

“We demand that starting from the top level, government officials declare their assets openly and don’t just seal them in a box,” he said, adding that current efforts at fighting corruption were futile without separation of powers within government.

“We must have an independent unit that enforces the anti-corruption law, and this unit must work in tandem with independent courts. If the court is not independent after we identify corrupt people, the court will be afraid of the prime minister and other leaders,” he added.

Regarding illegal immigration, particularly from Vietnam, Mr. Sokha said that by enforcing existing immigration and nationality laws, the CNRP would save the country from a “foreign invasion.”

“The foreign invasion has changed its form from [foreign countries] sending troops to sending the people to come in arbitrarily and take the land from us,” Mr. Sokha said.

“For 20 or 30 years, there have been many Vietnamese immigrants flocking to Cambodia, and we have never seen the Cambodian government enforce immigration laws by sending any Vietnamese person back to Viet­nam or having them stand trial,” he said.

In response, Mr. Eysan said that the administration led by Prime Minister Hun Sen adhered to policies of properly issuing identity cards and other legal documents to foreigners immigrating to or living in the country.

Mr. Eysan pointed to the country’s other major border with Thai­land in citing one of the CPP’s ma­jor achievements: preventing a war from breaking out along the Thai border in 2008 and maintaining Cambodia’s territorial integrity around the ancient Preah Vihear temple complex, a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site.

He also touted the government’s prompt response to natural disasters during its last mandate. “Our government was active in responding to natural disasters, including flooding and drought, in a timely manner,” he said.

Asked by a female university student how candidates planned to deal with human rights abuses going on in Cambodia, Mr. Eysan denied that any existed.

“Understand that this is only your opinion, and it cannot be considered as an absolute truth. For the CPP, we stick to the democratic and multiparty system and respect of human rights, which have been deeply rooted in our socio­economic development and poverty alleviation,” he said.

Mr. Eysan said the rate of poverty, which was at 100 percent when members of the CPP took control of the country after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, was at about 20 percent in 2012, and promised continued reductions of 1 percent per year if the CPP is once again voted into power.

Mr. Sokha’s most damning criticism of the ruling party came after a member of the audience, which was selected evenly by each of the participating parties, asked if the candidates recognized the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.

“The CNRP will resist, to the end, the power of dictatorship, the power of Pol Pot and other dictators who originated from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge—the communists that continue to implement the Khmer Rouge’s old policies with new activities,” Mr. Sokha said.

“In the Pol Pot time, they evacuated all the people [from cities], now they have evacuated Boeng Kak people, then Borei Keila and in various provinces, but using the old policies,” he said.

Laura Thornton, Cambodia’s resident director of U.S.-based Na­tional Democratic Institute, which organized the debate along with USAID, said unless complaints of violations of the debate’s code of ethics are filed and upheld, the de­bate would be broadcast un­edited on TVK and numerous radio stations, including state-owned Na­tional Radio, in the run-up to election.

The debate is scheduled to air on TVK at 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday and again on July 24 and 25.

Ms. Thornton said the open platform was crucial to showing Cambodians that peaceful confrontation and the free exchange of ideas are necessary to a functioning democracy.

“It is important for people to see that the ruling party and opposition party can disagree and even criticize each other, and it can happen in a civil way and it can be constructive and it’s all OK,” she said.

“My only wish is that we could have so much more of that, and in addition to TVK, have more stations willing to air more debates.”

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