Rule Changes Give Assembly President Broad New Powers

National Assembly President Heng Samrin has given himself the power to deny access to the assembly compound, including the offices of all lawmakers, to anyone not employed by the government and has barred all private citizens from testifying before—or sitting in on—assembly commission meetings.

The move by the CPP stalwart comes just as the opposition CNRP has gained unprecedented leverage in the assembly and vowed to use its newfound powers, including control of five parliamentary commissions, to press ahead with its reform agenda.

In a government circular signed and dated September 12, Mr. Samrin says all visits to the assembly compound must now go through him.

“Every invitation to the public, civil society or other experts who are not [the] National Assembly’s experts, including guests invited by lawmakers and commissions, in order to get inside the National Assembly compound shall ask for permission and get approval in advance from the president of the National Assembly,” Mr. Samrin says in the circular.

He adds that the assembly’s 10 commissions can no longer invite private citizens to answer questions at internal meetings under any circumstances or even let them sit in on and listen to the proceedings.

When meeting to discuss draft legislation, “The commissions can ask the public or civil society for their opinions from a distance, but they are not authorized to attend the commissions’ meetings,” Mr. Samrin says.

And when questioning a minister or other government official, he adds, “The commissions shall not invite civil society or journalists to monitor [their meetings] because only ministers or representatives of the government are obligated to provide clarification before the commissions.”

Mr. Samrin’s circular also says the commissions cannot hold meetings with the many protesters who come to petition the assembly for help.

“The lawmakers can go to take the petition and can let in a maximum of five people from a group [to] file the petition with the commission, then they must leave,” he says. “During that time, there shall be no meeting with the commission for settling the case.”

The new rules come less than two months after the CPP and CNRP struck a deal in which the opposition agreed to end its boycott of parliament over last year’s disputed national elections in exchange for a promised overhaul of the electoral system, the chairmanship of five of the assembly’s 10 commissions and the first vice presidency of the assembly.

Since taking their seats last month, the opposition has made no secret of their wish to bring more transparency to a secretive government and publicly question officials who have typically had to face little if any open scrutiny. The CNRP has also been vocal about wanting to give civil society and the public a louder voice in governmental matters.

The assembly’s anti-corruption commission, newly established at the opposition’s request and headed by CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann, planned to meet with Transparency International (T.I.) country director Preap Kol today.

CNRP lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth, who heads the assembly’s social affairs and labor commission, on Thursday said the CPP was clearly trying to stymie the opposition’s reform agenda.

“Obviously, this circular puts more restrictions on our work,” Ms. Sovannaroth said.

“As legislators, we need to make good laws for the benefit of the country, so it’s important to get civil society and other experts involved in attending meetings and giving their opinions,” she said.

“It’s very hard to do our job when they draw circles around our work because we cannot get a broad range of ideas.”

Ms. Sovannaroth said parliament already had enough internal rules in place to ensure that the public did not exercise undue influence over the legislative process. She said the CNRP would raise Mr. Samrin’s circular as a point of discussion when the assembly’s permanent committee meets next.

T.I.’s Mr. Kol said he had planned to deliver a broad overview of the state of government corruption and discuss ways to tackle graft during his scheduled meeting with lawmakers.

Just last week, T.I. released a 233-page report on Cambodia that painted a detailed picture of a country where corruption and impunity reign.

After seeing the new rules on Thursday, Mr. Kol said he was no longer sure whether he would even be allowed onto the assembly grounds.

“Let’s wait and see what will happen,” he said. “I hope we will be allowed to enter.”

The only explanation the circular offers for the new rules is “to keep public order inside the National Assembly compound.”

Neither Mr. Samrin nor National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun could be reached for comment.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak, who posted the circular online, said the CPP had agreed to discuss the assembly’s internal rules with the opposition as part of the political detente they negotiated.

“The circular seems to be trying to undermine the role the opposition can play in the National Assembly,” he said.

But Mr. Virak added that the existing rules were vague enough to leave room for interpretation.

“The problem is the internal rules itself,” he said.

“When the rules are vague, the people in power will get their way.”

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