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CAMBODIA: democrats must build new leaders and focus on nation-building

CAMBODIA: democrats must build new leaders and focus on nation-building

September 30, 2013

An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

As per his usual custom, sixty-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni clasps his hands in a show of traditional Khmer respect, his face wears a ready soft and gentle smile. The king was a graceful dancer in his youth and is known never to have wanted to be king.

Buffeted by the political winds, however, on Monday, Sept 23, the king acceded to the demands of the Cambodian People’s Party leaders, who insisted that the king perform his constitutional responsibility and open the inaugural session of Cambodia’s fifth parliament despite ongoing challenges to the legitimacy of the election that gave the CPP a slim majority. The National Assembly was half empty. Only 68 of the 123 seats were occupied. Elected delegates from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party were 200 kilometers away at Angkor Wat, taking their own symbolic oath to be faithful to the people’s will.

Last Sept 7, tens of thousands of voters and supporters of the CNRP gathered at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, and gathered again on Sept 15, 16, 17, carrying candles, incense, and lotus flowers, protesting alleged election irregularities and fraud that sanctioned the awarding by the CPP-appointed National Election Committee of a 13 seat advantage in the National Assembly to the CPP – 68 seats to 55 for the CNRP. Protesters endorsed CNRP’s persistent demand for an independent election probe to investigate the allegations of fraud and provide voters with “truth and justice.”

The king, who “shall reign but shall not govern” (Article 7 of Cambodia’s 1993 Constitution), was pressed to fulfill his constitutional duty to convene the first session of the National Assembly, “no later than sixty days after the election” (Art. 82), though in fact the convening could have occurred as late as September 26th, 60 days after the July 28th election.

Pandora’s Box

A Pandora’s box was opened with the king’s fateful action. Tossed aside were some half a million signatures from Cambodian citizens and Buddhist monks who were blocked from reaching the royal palace to submit cartons of petitions pleading for the king to delay the opening of the National Assembly. Also ignored was the opposition’s warning that it would boycott a parliamentary opening that occurred before CNRP-CPP talks aimed at resolving the election disputes were concluded.

The king’s action transformed the half empty assembly of 68 lawmakers from a single party into a National Assembly. A day after, on Sept 24, in an oral vote 68 CPP legislators approved Hun Sen as Prime Minister, and his new cabinet as the Royal Government of Cambodia. A royal decree formalized the events.

Increasing numbers of Cambodians have become vocal. They see the king as having disregarded the popular will which seemed to support a delay of the opening of the National Assembly.  As such, these protesters assert that the king has failed two other of his constitutional roles.  He does not in this instance represent a “symbol of unity and eternity of the Khmer nation” (Art.8), or to have fulfilled his “august role of arbitrator to ensure the faithful execution of public powers” (Art. 9).

Upset Cambodians also question the royal decree that installed Hun Sen as Prime Minister, as he was rejected by voters in his home province according to the CPP’s own ballot count, trailing his CNRP challenger by 104,000 votes.  Nor, logic follows, should Hun Sen’s cabinet appointees have been approved to comprise the Royal Government of Cambodia for the five year term ending in 2018.

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