The National Assembly began its debate on a draft customs law Wednesday, but the discussion turned into a heated exchange after SRP lawmakers tried to question a CPP Finance Ministry official about corruption and Global Witness’ controversial report.
CPP Finance Secretary of State Ouk Rabun attended the Assembly to defend the draft law, which sets rules and procedures for customs officials and penalties for individuals who don’t pay customs duties.
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, however, asked him about Global Witness’ allegations linking government officials to environmental plunder.
“The report linked the Ministry of Finance to involvement in illegal wood smuggling to China,” Yim Sovann said. “There is no record of exporting wood in the national budget, but there must be exportation from Cambodia that we don’t know about. I want to know what measures you have taken?” Yim Sovann asked Ouk Rabun.
Yim Sovann also asked about the Economic Institute of Cambodia’s recent report on beer smuggling, which states that the government lost $22 million in revenue last year due to contraband beer entering Cambodia. Customs officials should be on duty 24 hours a day, because most smuggling occurs at night, Yim Sovann said, adding that customs officials are too fearful to act against the rich and powerful.
Ouk Rabun declined to discuss either Global Witness’ or the EIC’s reports, other than to say that the government is investigating their claims.
Customs officials are already on duty 18 hours each day at the airports and 14 to 16 hours at seaports, he added.
After Ouk Rabun spoke, National Assembly and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin chastised SRP lawmakers for straying from the topic of the draft law.
“The lawmakers can question the government [but] they must write it in a statement through the National Assembly president,” Heng Samrin announced. “In order to avoid wasting time, the government can answer only those questions related to the law,” he added.
But SRP lawmaker Kim Souphirith then took the floor and blasted the country’s customs officials.
“Customs officers commit more corruption than other institutions,” he said, claiming that they obtain their positions through political ties and nepotism.
The government keeps asking donor countries for money, but manages it poorly and is becoming increasingly less accountable, he added.
“If we continue to be a broken basket, the donors will say that Cambodia continues to face difficulties,” Kim Souphirith said, using a colloquial phrase to describe somebody who mismanages money.
His remarks sparked anger from both Ouk Rabun and the CPP’s Deputy National Assembly President Nguon Nhel.
“You wanted to blast the government so that people would support you,” Ouk Rabun told Kim Souphirith. “I want the people to understand that the phrase ‘broken basket’ is not accurate,” he added.
Nguon Nhel said Kim Souphirith’s remarks were forbidden under the parliament’s new internal rules.
“It was an attack—he attacked the government,” Nguon Nhel said. “We cannot accept this because it is against the internal regulations.”
“We can give the government ideas, but we cannot instruct them to do something—it is against the National Assembly’s duty,” Nguon Nhel added.
Yim Sovann said later by telephone that Nguon Nhel was putting restrictions on lawmakers’ ability to freely express their ideas on the floor of the Assembly.
Mar Sophal, coordinating chief for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that since the CPP assumed the presidency of the Assembly last year, it has tried to use the internal regulations to dampen the speech of lawmakers.