As Constitution turns 28, observers say supreme law is fragile under one-party rule
Senior Privy Councilor Son Soubert fondly remembers the efforts of several weeks in 1993 to draft the text that would ostensibly define post-Cold War Cambodia: the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
“The very aim at the time was to constitutionalize ideas of honoring the rights and freedom of the people once violated by some previous political regimes, especially the Khmer Rouge,” Soubert, 79, told VOA Khmer in an interview. “We have tried to prevent the return of these horrors.”
Soubert, the only son of the late Cambodian statesman and former Prime Minister Son Sann, was part of the multi-party team that drafted the constitution, a process led by his father, who led anti-Communist activism against the Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s on the western borders of the country’s jungle.
Signed and promulgated on September 23, 1993, the Constitution restored the monarchy while creating an electoral democracy with a broad language on respect for human rights and freedoms.
Today, 28 years later, the Constitution still exists, but the ideals of democracy and human rights are increasingly fragile and uncertain under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has cemented his one-party rule and occupied all constitutional bodies, including the Constitutional Council, the Cambodian version of the US Supreme Court, Soubert said.
âIt loses all meaning,â he said, âbecause we have a de jure multi-party system in the constitution, but in the current de facto reality there is not. I am speechless.”
While many observers in Cambodia can calmly agree with Soubert’s analysis, a statement released by the United Nations only vaguely hinted at the recent democratic setback, saying Cambodia can “build back better.” “From the COVID-19 pandemic” and make sure no one stays. behind.”
Opposition politicians living abroad were more direct in their statement on the anniversary, writing “The Phnom Penh regime has abused and savagely destroyed the original spirit of the Constitution”.
After the CPP-dominated National Assembly passed a pair of controversial amendments to the country’s political parties law in 2017, a panel of judges – the majority of whom were card-holder members of the CPP – a banned the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the opposition, then handed over five years of political bans to 118 of the party’s oldest members.
With its main institutional rival eliminated, the ruling party won 58 seats in the 68-member Senate and 125 seats in the National Assembly, giving the CPP more than enough seats to change the constitution as it sees fit. Any constitutional amendment requires the approval of two-thirds of each of the two parliamentary chambers.
“The ruling CPP can just arbitrarily change anything without opposition given its 100% control of the lower house, which means no one will be legitimate enough to justify their actions if it can be done in the national interest. “said Soubert.
The Constitutional Council could have prevented the dissolution of the CNRP in 2017 by ruling that the amendments to the laws on political parties were unconstitutional, Soubert said. But this is not the case, which, according to Soubert, shows the lack of political independence of the nine-member body.
Soubert himself was among the members of the Council appointed by the King from 1998 to 2007. Each member has a nine-year term. The Council is responsible for evaluating the constitutionality of any law adopted by the Senate and the National Assembly before it is transmitted to the King for promulgation. He is also empowered to make official interpretation of the constitution and laws.
In the current Constitutional Council, there are three apolitical members appointed royally, each being a member of the royal family. The other six are pillars of the CPP.
Council Chairman Im Chhunlim was the former Minister of Land Management and also sits on the Standing Committee of the CPP, the party’s powerful political bureau made up of 36 members.
The other five members of the CPP – former Justice Department Deputy Commander Hy Sophea, former Election Commissioner Im Suosdey, former Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal Ly Vuochleng, Uth Chhorn and Sam Promonea – were all members of the Central Committee of the CPP, the decision the national political body of the party.
The leader of the ruling party does not hesitate to praise the ability of the party to change the Constitution on a whim. In response to opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s assertion that the prime minister is seeking post-prime ministerial immunity, Hun Sen admitted the obvious.
“In case I want to do so, I won’t just stop at legislating a law, but I will also go so far as to write it into the Constitution,” Hun Sen said in a heated speech last week.
âNot just legislate a law; the CPP is able to change the constitution.
At 28 years old, the country’s sixth constitution has a longer lifespan than all of its transformers. However, this is a very different document – having undergone nine changes, the last in 2018.
The ninth change involved the addition of clauses dictating that citizens and political parties should protect “national interests” and counter “interference” by foreign actors, as well as allow the confiscation of the voting rights of individuals deemed unqualified – all of them. measures that critics saw as targeting political opponents of the CPP.
âThe current constitution is too far removed from the original concepts,â said Soubert.
Sok Eysan, CPP senator and party spokesperson, said the party has always “respected” and “respected” the spirit of the Constitution.
âAll parts of the Constitution, like any other law, must be changed if they are not adapted to the new historical circumstances of our nation. But no amendment should affect the provisions of the constitutional monarchy, liberal and multiparty democracy and the market economic regime, âhe said.
Eysan brushed aside questions about the political independence of constitutional advisers.
âI wouldn’t want to comment on questions of political tendency. I only want to stress that the Constitutional Council will properly discharge its roles and duties as set out in its organic law, âhe declared. “Thus, there is no reason to bring an accusation of partiality of the Constitutional Council towards the CPP.”
On the anniversary of the Cambodian Constitution last week, the United Nations office in Cambodia also recalled its core tenants – and called on the government to respect them.
âAs Cambodia today celebrates Constitution Day amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN encourages Cambodia to defend and respect the human rights enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international human rights treaties as well as party democracy as recognized and stipulated in its Constitution, âhe said in a statement .
“Through the promotion and protection of human rights for all, Cambodia can better rebuild and ensure that no one is left behind,” he added.
CNRP Chairman Kem Sokha, who has been accused of plotting with the United States to overthrow the CPP, issued a slightly stronger statement marking the constitutional anniversary.
“Please unite to stop violating our constitution by not abusing the constitutional monarchy and not straying from the path of liberal, multi-party democracy as enshrined in our supreme law. Sokha wrote.
CNRP officials abroad, loyal to Sam Rainsy, Sokha’s predecessor and party co-founder, were less reserved in their statement.
âThe Phnom Penh regime has abused and savagely destroyed the original spirit of the Constitution, the supreme law of our nation. The Phnom Penh regime subsequently amended the constitution in an attempt to extend its hold on power.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the prime minister’s office and the CPP have always respected the rules and rights enshrined in the constitution.
“The fact that we occupy all the seats in the National Assembly does not mean that we can just go there and sit there, but it happened after the elections with our correct policies in the context of the rule of law. in a democratic society, âSiphan said.
âDemocracy is the option chosen by the Cambodian people. It is not up to one individual to choose. Thus, democracy does not fall from the sky, but it takes time to build. Cambodia is on this path, building democracy.
Son Soubert, however, said he sees a different reality in Cambodia, in which people’s rights are not respected and their voices are silenced.
âThe constitutional rights and freedom of the people are violated on a daily basis,â he said. âAll I can say is that it is unfortunate that we are not on the way to achieving a functioning democracy.