Three out of a scheduled five public forums organized by the Center for Social Development have taken place since Friday, with party representatives coming forward to explain their platforms and answer questions from people attending.
So far the forums have been held in Kratie town, where four parties were represented and about 70 people attended; Kompong Cham town, where 11 parties were represented and more than 80 people attended; and Phnom Penh, where 14 parties were represented and about 135 people attended.
All parties participating in the national elections have been invited to the forums, though the CPP has been absent except for an unexpected representative in Kratie.
CSD Project Director Sieng Huy said Thursday that the ruling party’s national headquarters declined the forum’s invitation, saying that its activists and candidates are too busy with election preparations.
Acknowledging that the ruling party strictly regulates public comment by its officials, CSD President Chea Vannath said she was not sure then why Koy Loung showed up at the Kratie forum to represent the CPP.
“The guy [explained] the platform of the CPP and kind of made it fit the region, fit to the circumstances and the climate of the forum itself. That means a lot of…freedom to answer the questions or avoid the questions,” she said.
“But in Kompong Cham I asked the CPP official…to represent the CPP at this debate. He said, ‘No, because I am not assigned, so I do not dare,’” Chea Vannath said.
But in Kratie, Koy Loung spoke firmly on behalf of his party, particularly on the issue of border encroachment, which has been a major platform plank for all opposition parties.
The border issue “has been a dispute since before Hun Sen was born, so why accuse Hun Sen of selling [Cambodian land to Vietnam]? We have state law to implement, so we need to solve it peacefully,” he said.
Each party participating in the forums is given equal time at the microphone to summarize its platform and respond to questions from the audience. But it is a period that some participants say is too limiting, despite their needing the free exposure.
“The forum is good because it gives a chance to small parties to tell about their platform, but the time is so short,” said Sun Sokunmealea, deputy president of the Khmer Front Party.
“We cannot explain our views. There are many problems with the government that need to be discussed. It is also not good because [the forum] does not allow the parties to criticize the ruling party,” she said.
A signboard is placed prominently at all of the forums instructing party representatives to refrain from attacking their counterparts and the other parties. It is a measure to ensure civility at the microphone, Chea Vannath said.
Chan Darun, Cabinet chief and spokesman for the Norodom Chakrapong Proloeung Khmer Party, spoke more bitterly about the time allotment.
“To speak frankly, I don’t like to take part because the time is too short. Because in two minutes you cannot answer [questions] about the big problems of the country. The short time could make people misunderstand my answer,” Chan Darun said.
“The NGO workers know we are small parties. We do not have our own media. They also know we depend on this opportunity to air our opinion to the public. [They] should not give us such a short time,” he said.
Chan Darun also accused the ruling party of cowardly avoiding the forum.
“The CPP never shows up at the public debates because they know we would ask them a lot of serious questions. Most of the small parties need to ask the CPP questions because it has been ruling the country more than 20 years. We want to ask why things have not improved,” Chan Darun said.
Audience members have also been frustrated by the lost opportunity to put questions to the CPP.
“I came here to ask the CPP but the CPP is not here,” one man said at the microphone, before wishing the other parties good luck and returning to his chair at Thursday’s Phnom Penh forum.
Chea Vannath said that most audience members wanted to direct their questions to the three big parties—CPP, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party—but all participants seem to be benefiting from the forum.
“I think this kind of debate is very inspiring,” she said. “When they listen to the other parties
…that makes the political party [do] their own thinking, their own principles and guidelines, rather than copying from the big parties.”
Most party representatives at the first three forums were united in most of their positions—“end corruption,” “raise civil servants’ salaries,” “take back Cambodian land from Vietnam and Thailand,” “halt illegal immigration”—some did offer up different means of achieving those ends.
The last two CSD public forums will be held July 10 in Siem Reap and July 14 in Sihanoukville.
(Additional reporting by Porter Barron)