The ruling CPP has expelled three senators from the party for rejecting a government-sponsored bill, saying they failed to respect party discipline.
Two of the senators, Cambodian-Australian Poeu Savath and Cambodian-American Phay Siphan, say they don’t understand why they were dismissed.
“We did not get any explanation for this ouster. What did we do wrong?” Poeu Savath said.
Party leaders suggested he write to the CPP standing committee for an explanation, Poeu Savath said. The third senator, US citizen Chhang Song, said he believes he was sacked because he has been too outspoken.
Oum Sarith, general secretary for the Senate, said the three senators were dismissed because they did not follow the party line. The three had opposed revisions to the penal code that would allow police to detain suspects for 72 hours instead of 48.
The expulsion means the senators will lose their parliamentary seats and about $2,000 per month in salaries and expenses. It is the first time a legislator has lost his seat since 1994, when Funcinpec expelled Sam Rainsy.
The disciplinary action, coming just weeks after outspoken opposition party member Son Chhay lost a leadership position in the National Assembly, shows the government is not yet seriously committed to free speech, one activist said.
“It is a kind of backlash,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, adding that disciplining legislators sends a strong message to the public that dissent will not be tolerated.
“Our leaders want things under control, not out of control,” Chea Vannath said. “One way to do that is to limit freedom of expression,” a tradition she says stems from Cambodia’s communist past.
“It is very difficult to have real development or free, fair and acceptable elections, without a free flow of information,” she said.
Chhang Song said his troubles stem from a debate held Thursday, when he questioned whether revisions to the penal code violated the separation of powers between the executive, judicial and legislative branches.
The criminal code “was so confusing about these three powers,” he told fellow senators, noting that the new code instructs people to take complaints about the court system to the Ministry of Justice, rather than to the courts.
“I said if we are writing unclear regulations about the importance of separating these three powers, it would affect democracy and the rule of law and we are making Cambodia a dictatorship,” Chhang Song said.
He said he also questioned why military police, expensively trained for a variety of law enforcement duties by French advisers, were being used to direct traffic.
Chhang Song said it is hard to believe that such remarks cost him his job.
“I am astonished. I trust the CPP, I have helped build a bridge between the CPP and the US and the Western world at large. I spent my best 10 years working with the CPP,” he said.
Political opponents of the CPP such as Sam Rainsy, Son Soubert, and Kem Sokha have embarrassed the party by complaining to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which condemned Cambodia for not being democratic, Chhang Song said.
By contrast, Chhang Song said, he worked to lift that condemnation at September’s meeting of the IPU.
Chhang Song also questioned why he was disciplined when Uk Bun Chhoeun, who chairs the CPP’s legislative commission, also recommended the penal code be returned to the National Assembly for revision.
“I just expressed the same idea as my CPP colleague,” he said.
Chhang Song, who was once Minister of Information during the Lon Nol regime, said he is down to his last $200, which is not enough for a plane ticket back to the US, where he has family.
Poeu Savath said he never worked against the party’s interests, but did oppose corruption, land grabs, illegal logging and social injustice.
“Am I guilty to speak out against those problems?” he asked. “Are they mistakes?”
Phay Siphan said his sacking means he cannot continue his efforts to revise the press law and provide training money for journalists to discourage bribe taking.
The government should remember it is not enough to give the people food, but they must also have freedom, Phay Siphan said.
The ousted senator said he had made great personal sacrifices to come to Cambodia, spending about $600,000 on party activities, but still thanked the CPP for giving him the opportunity to serve.
He laughed as he said that when people ask him what he brought back from Cambodia, he will only be able to say: “liver disease and diabetes.”