In a strongly worded statement issued Saturday, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the National Assembly’s decision last week to expel 27 opposition parliamentarians from the government’s top legislative body.
“Such a decision starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process,” Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said in the statement.
“We strongly support a political process that includes the full participation of all political parties on a level playing field. Stripping the salaries and parliamentary status of opposition party legislators deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process in Cambodia,” the statement says.
“We urge the National Assembly leadership to allow all elected members to fulfill their commitment to serve the Cambodian people,” it continues.
Members of the National Assembly’s 12-member permanent committee announced on Wednesday that the group had decided to strip the members of the opposition of their salaries and parliamentary status for violating internal rules that ban lawmakers from being part of two political parties at the same time.
However, lawmakers for the SRP and Human Rights Party have said that although they are running as candidates for the newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), they have not resigned from the parties they represent in Parliament, and therefore should be allowed to keep their National Assembly seats.
Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, also said Sunday that the decision by CPP lawmakers undermines the principles of democracy and because of its timing, negatively impacts the perception of Cambodia’s elections both at home and abroad.
“The move coming so close to the elections to the National Assembly does not look good,” said Mr. Subedi.
“Without an effective opposition in the National Assembly, democracy in Cambodia would be weaker. All political parties should be mindful of the ethos of the Constitution of Cambodia founded on the values of liberal democracy and plurality,” he added.
Though parliamentarians are obliged to give up their seat for a reserve lawmaker if they leave their party more than six months before a national election, legal experts say that the legality of the permanent committee’s decision depends more on how the Constitution and Law on the Election of National Assembly Members is read.
For example, the law does not say what happens to lawmakers who leave their party within six months of an election. The CNRP only announced its candidates for the national elections last month.
Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan said that although the U.S. State Department had the right to comment, its criticism of the decision to expel opposition members from Parliament was unfounded.
“We did this in order to strengthen the rule of law. The opposition party cannot do whatever they want under the law,” said Mr. Siphan.
“If they [the U.S. State Department] want the improvement of the rule of law, they should understand that the state has implemented this rule in compliance with the law, which is based on the people’s will,” he said.
But according to Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, the decision, while unpopular with democratic countries in the West, was simply another example of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political posturing as July’s national election draws closer.
“Hun Sen loves playing around with [the] opposition by humiliating them and dominating them, so this is just another piece of political theater that indicates that he is a strongman,” Mr. Thayer said.
“[Expelling opposition members of the National Assembly] doesn’t play well to the U.S., E.U. and other democracies, especially those that spent so much money backing the U.N.,” he said, referring to the U.N.’s efforts since the early 1990s to promote democracy in the country.
The U.S. statement comes on the back of a number of recommendations by the U.S., European Union, U.N. and local independent election monitors who say that widespread reform of the country’s electoral process and democratic institutions is necessary in order to ensure the legitimacy of elections.
Among the central concerns raised by these groups is the effective exclusion of opposition parties from mass media—particularly television—the lack of independence within the CPP-controlled National Election Committee (NEC) and the refusal of the NEC to revise voter lists that exclude tens of thousands of eligible voters.
Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, said that the Cambodian government’s implementation of these proposed reforms was essential to ensuring fair elections, and ultimately enhancing relations between the two countries. “As President Barack Obama made clear during his visit last November, lack of progress on human rights and democracy issues is an impediment to deeper relations between Cambodia and the United States,” Mr. McIntosh said in an email.
“The upcoming National Assembly elections will be a critical test of the Royal Government of Cambodia’s commitment to strengthening the nation’s democracy,” he added.
But if the past is any indication, calls for a fairer democratic process from the U.S. and other major international donors are no guarantee that Cambodia’s government will move toward reform, said Laura Thornton, resident director of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute in Cambodia.
“In terms of elections, the international community has made recommendations multiple times in the last 10 years…and we have seen hardly any progress on that. This leads me to believe advocacy efforts of groups focused on election reform have not been successful,” she said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy said that Mr. Hun Sen might be willing to compromise with Western donors if he sees it as being strategically advantageous.
“At the moment, there is political pressure for reform. Hun Sen will read which way the wind is blowing. He knows when to make concessions, but the dominance of CPP will continue,” he said.