When Senator Kem Sokha requested a Senate public hearing on the draft law to try former Khmer Rouge leaders, he thought he was fulfilling his role in a burgeoning democracy.
When his request was rejected by the Senate leadership, he realized he might be operating in a democracy all too reluctant to involve its legislative branch.
“I don’t think we use real democracy all the time,” said Kem Sokha, a Funcinpec member who heads the Senate’s human rights commission. “I think we only use it when the government wants to.”
Kem Sokha made his request last week under his commission’s mandate to “initiate public hearings on proposed laws or draft bills.” Although the Senate will not formally debate the law until after it’s passed by the Cabinet and the National Assembly, Kem Sokha—along with a number of NGOs—says public say on the matter is long overdue.
But Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak, first deputy president of the Senate, said the Senate should not rock the boat during sensitive talks over how to conduct the trial.
“We are concerned it might effect the government’s policy,” the senior Funcinpec lawmaker wrote in a letter to Kem Sokha.
“Now is not the time for a public hearing. The prime minister [Hun Sen] has said everything that needs to be said,” the prince said in an interview on Tuesday.
Government analysts, however, worry the move is indicative of a larger problem that could arise during debate over what could be the government’s highest profile law to date.
“This is yet another instance of the government’s domination of the lawmaking bodies. It proves the cabinet is playing a dominant role against the spirit of parliamentary democracy,” said Lao Mong Hay, head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.
Yet he clarified that in a parliamentary system, grassroots public hearings aren’t the accepted route to ascertaining public opinion. Typically, the Senate is charged with testing the constitutionality of laws. Once a law is drafted by the cabinet, it is offered for public comment. If citizens want to lobby parliamentarians or senators on certain aspects of the law, they may.
Still, Lao Mong Hay said the decision to quash Kem Sokha’s request should be challenged by the Constitutional Council.
“There are other mechanisms for public hearings. But if [the human rights commission’s] procedures allow for hearings, why not have one?” he said. “With a law as important as this one, silence only means approval.”
Other members of the Senate—which was formed in March after months of wrangling over whether its purpose justified its expense—said it might not be necessary to go that far.
CPP Senator Ung Ty, a deputy on the human rights commission, said all five commission members again will request a hearing. “We will write an explanation… with all five members to sign on it,” he said.
“I fully support a hearing,” said Ung Ty, a CPP member. “We want to protect the human rights of both sides—the accuser and the accused—in our democracy.”
Funcinpec Senator Sam Kannitha defended Sisowath Chivan Monirak’s rejection of the public hearing and said the deputy president wants to be better informed before making waves in government. He noted that “a lot of senators” would support a public hearing.
For his part, Sisowath Chivan Monirak agreed that the public has a right to offer opinions but maintained the time is not right.
Other Senate officials said they have been too busy to take up the issue, noting the recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.
Senate Secretary General Oum Sarith (CPP) said the door is not completely closed on public hearings. “We will debate further on the issue. We are open,” he said on Tuesday. He noted that the request should be taken to Senate President and CPP President Chea Sim.
Human rights expert Kek Galabru, whose group Licadho is pushing for public surveys and hearings on the upcoming trial, said she doubts just one hearing would be enough.
“No one has asked the people. This is the problem of all Cambodian people, not only one small group….If you want to have justice, you should ask their opinion,” she said.