Ten Years Later, Corruption Mars a Consitutional Attempt at Democracy

When King Norodom Sihanouk signed Cambodia’s Constitution on Sept 24, 1993, and on the same day reclaimed the throne, many saw the event as the country’s rebirth.

After more than two decades of suffering and destruction, the Constitution made Cambodia a constitutional monarchy, signaling an end to the Untac era, which followed years of Khmer Rouge control and subsequent Vietnamese occupation.

The Constitution instilled a sense of order and stability to a country recovering from war, reinstalling the King as the nation’s head of state after 23 years.

For participants who were present at the signing and coronation ceremonies, the atmosphere was one of jubilation and hope.

“I was feeling emotional because I was waiting for that day,” said CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yeap, as he reflected on the event.

“I wanted all Cambodians to live under one great Khmer family,” he said, adding that his role as one of 26 lawmakers who drafted the Constitution is one he still looks back on with pride.

The pair of back-to-back ceremonies, which took place in the Throne Hall of the Royal Palace, were elaborate—replete with the sounding of conch-shell horns, incense and offerings to Buddha, including fruit, ducks and roasted pigs’ heads.

After the signing, the King addressed a crowd of more than 4,000 people who had gathered outside the palace. Those who were there said his words conveyed many of their wishes.

“It is indisputable that as of today, our beloved Cambodia and people possess the most democratic and most liberal constitution, which places our country in the ranks of the most authentically democratic countries in the world,” King Sihanouk said.

But 10 years later, on the anniversary of the Constitution, the question of whether it has lived up to its promise is a matter of debate.

Some of the biggest criticisms lie not against the Constitution itself, but against the implementation of its articles or lack thereof.

For instance, the establishment of a National Congress, as stipulated in the 14-chapter document, has still not been realized, to the chagrin of many.

The National Congress was intended to be a yearly meeting of politicians and the public to “enable the people to be directly informed on various matters of national interest and to raise issues and requests for the State authority to solve,” the Constitution states.

Without it, the public lacks a voice in government activities, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development. Ten years ago, she was an Untac employee and translator for Untac chief Yasushi Akashi.

“Really, there is no public participation. There is no accountability” for the government’s actions, she said.

Moreover, people’s understanding of their rights and responsibilities under the Constitution is still limited, she said, especially in the countryside where illiteracy and poverty run a vicious circle.

“Understanding of democracy is still quite low,” she said.

The Constitution protects citizens’ right not to be deprived of their nationality, as well as their right to freedom of expression, to travel and to choose their own employment. It also states that the law guarantees no individual shall be physically abused.

Violations of those rights, however, are becoming less prevalent due to increasing legal education in public schools, said Say Bory, a Constitutional Council member who also helped draft the Constitution. “The more people understand the Constitution, the more the government will respect the law,” he said. “Things are getting better, but it takes a long time.”

Others, however, are not so optimistic. For Son Soubert, a member of the Constitutional Council and member of the 1993 Constitution drafting commission, the past 10 years have been nothing short of failure.

Widespread corruption has stunted democracy and prosperity in the country, he said, adding that Cambodia’s politicians have compromised the future of the nation in favor of personal gain.

“Every one of the political parties is responsible for that, including ours,” said the former BLDP parliamentarian. “Every one of us hoped after all those tragic events, we could have prosperity. Instead, [the situation] is even worse.”

In the King’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime of the 1950s and 1960s, “you’d feel ashamed if you’re considered corrupt. Now [corruption] is more than a cancer. It’s really undermined our society,” he said, adding that the problem has tainted even the country’s young, as school children are forced to bribe their way to a passing grade.

“If you’re not corrupt, people say you’re crazy. It’s the world in reverse,” he said.

Son Soubert added that when the Constitution called for the adoption of a market economy, it was ill-prepared to protect against monopolies and the widespread depletion of natural resources.

In addition, he said the country’s goal of reconciliation has not yet been realized as Cambodian hill tribe people and returnees from the Thai border still face discrimination.

But at the age of 61, Son Soubert said he has no regrets over the wording of the Constitution.

“The Constitution is not the problem. It’s how you implement it that’s the issue,” he said. “For the future of this country, it’s important we establish strong institutions…. This is my only wish before we all disappear: we want strong institutions in Cambodia.”

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he, too, was disappointed in the path the country has taken over the past decade. As a member of the Constitutional drafting committee, he said he had high hopes for Cambodia’s future.

Instead, he said, “In many aspects, it has moved backward…. It’s a painful learning process.”

But, he added: “You cannot blame children who are learning to walk.”

In contrast, Cheam Yeap said that despite some minor glitches, the government has strongly enforced the Constitution, adding that his vision of the country has been fulfilled.

“Since 1993, we have seriously followed the spirit of the Constitution,” he said.

A decade ago, he said, “I expected the country would undergo major changes. I dreamed of peace, development and stability, and that the country would be able to solve anything, including corruption. Most of my dreams have come true.”

He smiled as he pointed out the constitutional articles that he wrote: Articles 68, 69, 70, concerning free primary and secondary education and the preservation of national culture, as well as Articles 57 on tax collection and 64 on the prohibition of drugs.

Cheam Yeap said that during the month it took for the lawmakers to draft the Constitution, meetings between the representatives of various parties were at times filled with acrimony and fights over legal issues. But, overall, he said, “members of the commission clearly understood the situation of Khmer society.”

On its 10-year anniversary, politicians are again debating over the Constitution ahead of the formation of a new government.

Interpretations vary over the requirements of the inaugural meeting of the third legislature, ranging from the King’s presence to the number of participants needed to hold a legitimate meeting.

But, in spite of the shortcomings of the Constitution and its implementation, Chea Vannath said it has ensured that the country enjoys more freedom and democracy than others in the region, such as Vietnam, Burma and Malaysia.

“It’s not that bad after all,” she said. “The problems can be fixed…. Nothing is too late.”

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