That the National Assembly lacks the money and resources to operate efficiently is a frequently voiced lament.
But Pen Dareth, an adviser to the government, says there may be something more basic keeping the nation’s lawmaking body from being more effective: self-confidence.
“They have rights, but they do not exercise their rights. They are not courageous,” he said at a conference this week on improving the operations of the Cambodian legislature. “The public say that the National Assembly [members] do not use their rights, they are so inactive.”
As the assembly opened its new session this week, a group of parliamentarians and democracy advocates from Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Germany gathered across town to share experiences and make suggestions for improving the organization, a body often criticized for playing too small a role in lawmaking.
“Since the election in 1993, the role and functioning of the National Assembly has been frequently questioned,” said Prince Norodom Sirivudh, chairman of the board of directors for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, which sponsored the two-day meeting along with the thinktank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
National Assembly President and Funcinpec Party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh linked the legislative body’s shortcomings to its relative inexperience.
“We should recognize that our parliament is still at the early stages of its democratic process,” Prince Ranariddh said. “There is an obvious weakness by some members of parliament in understanding the sophistication of law.”
Prince Ranariddh, along with several other conference participants, also bemoaned the lack of funding and resources and a shortage of qualified and trained staff to assist parliamentarians.
But since its inception, he said, the National Assembly has gradually become a more professional organization, participating in several training workshops for members and joining regional parliament associations.
Outlining the assembly’s achievements, Prince Ranariddh noted that the assembly passed 90 laws during the first legislature and has passed another 30 in the first 20 months of the second legislature.
But Son Chhay, a parliamentarian from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said the number of laws passed is misleading and does not accurately reflect the work—and influence—of the assembly. “Up to now, only the laws approved by the government will be receiving attention from the government,” he said.
In 1996 he helped draft an anti-corruption law, but when it was submitted to the government for review, it was rejected. “The government said, “No, we’ll write our own. Wait,’ “ Son Chhay said. “Normally, the law should be presented by the parliament,” he said. “The parliament seems to be a rubber stamp, the tool of the executive. It does not seem to be independent yet.”
A recently-released report by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute supports the assessment. “The National Assembly and the Senate hold all legislative power in the country,” the report states. “In practice, this is not the case.
“So far, the National Assembly and Senate have been playing a limited role in legislative drafting. The vast majority of draft legislation originates with the ministries and is forwarded to the Assembly after approval by the Council of Ministers. The Assembly has only a minor role in legislative drafting; it basically initiates no legislation.”
The role of the National Assembly, according to the report, has been to enact bills approved by the government.
“Generally, the Assembly’s role in the legislative process is reactive and comes late,” the report continues.
The annual budget, for example, is given to the Assembly in mid-December, two weeks before the start of the next fiscal year, leaving no time for a proper review of a complex proposal. “It is no surprise,” the report states, “that the Assembly has never changed a single budget line from the draft received from the government.”
Son Soubert, a member of the Constitutional Council and former parliamentarian, said the country’s legislature is weak because it is dominated by a single party that dictates a single agenda—both inside and outside the Assembly.
“The customs of the communist party that has been leading our country for nearly two decades have not completely vanished yet,” Son Soubert said. “The members of parliament from the [Cambodia People’s Party] have no right or freedom to decide in contradiction to the party’s line. This means that the National Assembly which has a majority of seats from the CPP cannot decide anything contrary to the party’s line, as in the Royal Government also.”
Son Chhay, the opposition lawmaker, said the parliament must have the conviction to act independently.
“In order to make our parliament effective, we must have political will,” he said. “We can have 100 conferences like this, but we will have no results without political will.”
While the assembly needs to be more aggressive, parliamentarians said, the body is often paralyzed by a lack of resources, from qualified staff to aid in researching legislation to drawers to hold documents.
“We don’t have the funds to pay an MP to open an office in their constituency,” Son Chhay said. “Most of the population, if they suffer, they cannot find someone to help them. They have to come to the National Assembly building.”
The conference participants acknowledged the problems are many. But the discussion, they said, is a solid start.
The forum, Prince Sirivudh said, allowed participants a neutral forum to discuss challenges facing the legislature. “There’s some positive, some negative,” he said. “People feel more free here to express themselves.”
Building a stronger parliament “is a long process,” Prince Sirivudh said. “It’s like raindrops. The raindrops multiply and fill the bucket.”