National Assembly Vote Is Unanimous
The National Assembly on Tuesday unanimously passed the long-awaited draft law to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, marking the first time in recent history that all lawmakers in attendance voted to approve a piece of legislation.
Now the test is how quickly the draft law will be implemented, experts said, especially given the nearly one year the government and the UN spent wrangling and negotiating over a tribunal framework.
After two sessions of debate, which began Friday, the National Assembly passed the 48-article draft law in a 92-0 vote. Thirty lawmakers did not attend Tuesday’s session.
“I would like to express my thanks to the National Assembly for your clear understanding of the Khmer Rouge trial law,” said Minister of Cabinet Sok An, who heads the government’s negotiating team on the draft law.
The draft law now goes to the Senate, then the Constitutional Council and finally to King Norodom Sihanouk. If the King approves, Sok An would be able to sign a memorandum of understanding with the UN to make the tribunal agreement official.
The National Assembly’s first vice president, Heng Samrin, who is also honorary president of the ruling CPP, presided over Tuesday’s session.
National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh did not attend the session because it was his birthday.
Heng Samrin noted that the passage of the draft law comes close to the anniversary of the Vietnamese troops entering Phnom Penh to oust the Khmer Rouge, which is Sunday.
“Our fight to topple the genocidal regime on Jan 7  was one victory already for Cambodia, and it is another victory today that we have decided to put the Khmer Rouge on trial,” Heng Samrin said.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, normally one of the most vocal critics of government-sponsored legislation, was unusually quiet during Tuesday’s session. After the vote, he called on the government to quickly implement the draft law.
“Having the Khmer Rouge law is not enough,” Sam Rainsy said. “There should be sustainable political will by the government to get this process done.”
Fellow opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy, the only lawmaker to vote down portions of the law, voted against two chapters that give Cambodian judges more seats on the tribunal than foreign judges. He said Cambodian judges are corrupt and should be given fewer seats than foreign judges. However, even he voted for the overall draft law.
“This is a trial for humankind, not only for Cambodians,” Cheam Channy said. “Don’t let there be any more stalling,” he said, asking the government to “hurry up the implementation.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap questioned why the draft law said the government could not grant amnesties or pardons to those being investigated in a tribunal when the Constitution gives power to the National Assembly and the King to do so.
Sok An said the UN did not want the government to be involved in amnesties or pardons, instead leaving those issues up to the court.
It would be up to the court to decide whether Ieng Sary, who was deputy premier of the Khmer Rouge regime and defected to the government in 1996, will be tried. He was granted amnesty for his conviction in a 1979 show trial set up after the Vietnamese took power. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he would not support Ieng Sary being brought to trial.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the debate on the draft law should have been more thorough, considering that most Cambodians watching the National Assembly session on television have no legal background.
“I wished the debate would have been more detailed for the victims of the Khmer Rouge to understand the trial,” he said.
But, he said he was glad to see the draft law finally passed by lawmakers and hoped it would be implemented soon.
“The baby is born and now you have to take care of it,” Youk Chhang said. “You can’t pass it today and dismiss it tomorrow.”
Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the vote showed the consensus of the three major parties. “The draft law has been worked on for a long time already, so by the time it got to the National Assembly, it had been cleaned up.”
He said the critical questions are if and how the draft law would be executed. “Despite the fact that this has been a speedy process [in the National Assembly], it doesn’t mean that the implementation process will be easy.”
A Western diplomat said Sok An did a good job of explaining the law to lawmakers.
“This is a historic thing,” the diplomat said. “Few people would have predicted this was going to happen a year ago.”
Although the government has been blamed for stalling on the draft law, some criticized the lack of a UN presence during the talks leading up to and including the National Assembly proceedings. No UN officials have attended talks on the law since the UN legal affairs chief, Hans Corell, visited Cambodia in July.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said there were problems with the technical aspects of the law and parliamentarians should have organized a forum to consult legal experts.
Among those problems is the requirement of a supermajority to declare a decision—which will be hard to reach—and the participation of investigating judges, who play the role of both prosecutor and judge, Sok Sam Oeun said.
“[Lawmakers] don’t care about the technical aspects,” he said. “They only care about the politics.”