The controversial new law scrapping lawmakers’ right to speak freely in parliament has sparked concerns among rights workers and the US Embassy that Cambodia has taken a step backward from democracy.
The US Embassy Thursday called the passage of the law an “historic event” that has emasculated the National Assembly.
“Historically there have been isolated instances of individuals being castrated, but this may be the first instance of collective self-castration,” US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said in an e-mailed statement. “That they are freely giving up their freedom is stunning,” he continued.
Mussomeli said there are virtually no other countries enacting similar legislation. “It clearly sets the Cambodian Assembly apart from virtually all others,” he added.
The law, which CPP and Funcinpec parliamentarians voted in favor of Wednesday, opens the way for lawmakers to be charged with criminal offenses without their parliamentary immunity first being removed.
It states that lawmakers cannot use their immunity to abuse an individual’s dignity, public order, social customs or national security. Lawmakers can also be arrested immediately if they commit a “serious crime,” which the law does not attempt to define.
Several parliamentarians who voted for the law said that they did so because an additional chapter that gave them a lifelong pension and funeral expenses attracted them.
“Some lawmakers were happy about the pension and their funeral services,” Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Keo Remy said Thursday. “But they didn’t realize that the law hid some articles that force the lawmakers into difficulties in doing their work,” he said, adding that the law reflected poorly on the country. “This regime is a fake democratic regime,” he said.
The UN Development Program, which funds a parliamentary strengthening project in Cambodia, reacted cautiously, stating that it wants to see the Assembly permit its members the freedom to do their jobs.
“We do not have a legal opinion on the virtue of the law since we have not seen it yet,” UNDP spokesman Men Kimseng said in an e-mail. “However, we want to see that the Cambodian parliament follows democratic principles where its members shall enjoy the freedom of speech and immunity during the exercise of his/her functions as stipulated in Article 80 of the Cambodian Constitution.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Director Kem Sokha, who was imprisoned earlier this year after being accused of defaming the government, said the law shows that the Assembly is “going backward.”
“I don’t know why the lawmakers made a law to tie themselves up,” he said. “The ruling party might think that it is good but they will realize their error when the small parties control the government,” he added.
Thun Saray, director of local rights group Adhoc, also said the law is an attempt to handicap the minority.
The problem is that those who voted for it may one day be in the minority and be at a disadvantage, he said. “The lawmakers only think of the short-term benefits, not the long term,” he said.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the law is designed to stop the opposition from defaming the government. “They can criticize the government but not defame the government,” he said.
British Embassy Deputy Head of Mission John Mitchell said that the embassy would need more time to study the law before commenting. The embassies of France and Australia both declined comment.