With pomp, fanfare and colorful flags flying overhead, thousands of government officials and foreign diplomats gathered Saturday morning to inaugurate the new National Assembly building close to the NagaCorp Casino.
Cambodian officials said the new building was a symbol of democratic progress and that it would help parliament to better serve the nation. However, several observers questioned the amount of money lavished on the ceremony, and predicted that the building would do little to liberate Cambodia’s lawmakers from pressure from the executive branch.
King Sihamoni, who presided over the ceremony, touted the $29-million building as a symbol of democratic reform.
“The achievement is evidence of the wise commitment of Cambodia to strengthen legislation and the rule of law through the pluralism of political parties,” he said.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, whose son-in-law Ly Chhuong owns the company that constructed the building, said its inauguration marked history in the making.
“This massive achievement is a gift…to mark the 60th anniversary of the Cambodian National Assembly,” he said.
National Assembly and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin said the new Assembly building is the biggest structure to be constructed with funds from the national budget.
“The structure’s aim is to enable lawmakers to serve their constituencies and all people regardless of political affiliation,” he said.
The inauguration ceremony—which cost about $400,000—has prompted some to question whether the money could have been better spent.
SRP lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, who is also the wife of party president Sam Rainsy, said Sunday that she felt too much money was spent on the inauguration.
“The present rulers decided not to increase the [number of] members of parliament because they didn’t want to spend money, but they don’t hesitate to spend money on useless festivities,” she said.
Nguon Nhel, CPP lawmaker and Assembly vice president, said the government invited many foreign delegations to the inauguration, and that some of the $400,000 went to provide for their meals and hotel accommodations.
“We spent a lot of money. We have documents to prove [how it was spent],” he said, adding that the Assembly also chartered a plane to fly attendees of the ceremony to Siem Reap province to visit Angkor.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said he doubted whether the new building would prompt any positive change in the behavior of lawmakers who are currently too easily swayed by pressure from political parties.
“National Assembly lawmakers must also change their attitude of working,” he said. “If lawmakers don’t show their power, the big National Assembly building is useless and the National Assembly is just a rubber stamp.”
Nguon Nhel said the Assembly is not under government influence.
“The executive never questions the lawmakers. Only lawmakers question government officials,” he said. “There are many draft laws returned to the government when [the Assembly] does not feel they are right,” he added.
He said parliamentarians are each given 20 minutes in which to speak freely during discussions over draft laws. “It is democracy,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Emily Lodish)