Running as a candidate for the third time, lawyer Suon Visal became president of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC) on Sunday with a landslide election victory, carrying two-thirds of the votes among his colleagues across the country in the biennial polls.
Taking 622 of the 934 votes cast, Mr. Visal replaces Bun Honn, who served two consecutive two-year terms as the bar association’s president.
“Today is the day that I have been waiting for,” Mr. Visal said to a ballroom packed with black-robed lawyers at the Sokha hotel in Phnom Penh. “I strongly vow to serve my fellow lawyers to better society, the bar association and the whole of the Cambodian people.”
Mr. Visal became a legal instructor after studying at the University of San Francisco in 1995 and was admitted to the Cambodian bar in 1997. He later earned a master of laws in international human rights degree from the University of Hong Kong in 2002.
He has previously worked as a defense lawyer for Nuon Chea at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, as a legal adviser for the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) and is currently chairman of the Khmer Apsara Law Firm.
In the 2004 BAKC elections, he was elected president, but was ousted when his predecessor, Ky Tech, refused to step down and filed a legal complaint against him. The Court of Appeal overturned the election results and Mr. Tech remained in his role.
“The previous matters I have forgotten already,” Mr. Visal said on Sunday.
Looking forward, he added that he hoped to strengthen the legal system in the country by revamping administrative systems, the code of ethics and court practices.
There is much work to be done, according to rights groups at home and around the world, who say Cambodia’s courts are beset by corruption and political influence—a criticism that has taken on particular weight in the midst of what many call a judicial assault on the opposition and other government critics.
In September last year, the bar itself faced heavy criticism from the International Bar Association for allegedly favoring unqualified CPP-linked membership candidates, allowing political manipulation of leadership votes and accepting bribes in exchange for training program placement. The bar denied political influence, but did not respond to the bribery accusation.
Sok Sam Oeun, a human rights lawyer who worked with Mr. Visal at the CDP, said that while the new president of the bar might have an honest desire to reform the system, his potential sway was limited.
“Because of the structure within the bar, I do not see much hope of improvement, because the president does not have much power,” he said, citing the BAKC’s council, which has the final say in approving presidents’ recommendations.
“Many of them are private lawyers, so they do not focus much on the public’s interests,” Mr. Sam Oeun added. “His goal is to improve the bar, but because…it is a short term—only two years—he may not be able to change much.”
Chhy Sambath, Sunday’s runner-up with 244 votes, had bigger concerns than his election loss.
The lawyer was summoned by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) for questioning over allegations that he has worked as a “go-between” in court procedures, Mr. Honn said, declining to elaborate. The unit’s chairman, Om Yentieng, said Mr. Sambath is expected to appear at the ACU’s Phnom Penh headquarters on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)