In the first test of new, wide-reaching rules that give National Assembly President Heng Samrin the power to decide who is allowed to enter the assembly grounds, a prominent government critic was allowed to meet with the parliamentary Anti-Corruption Commission on Friday.
The 12-member National Assembly permanent committee, made up entirely of CPP lawmakers, decided Wednesday to strip 27 opposition lawmakers from the SRP and Human Rights Party (HRP) of their parliamentary status and salaries.
The decision means that opposition members of Parliament, who are all running in July’s election as candidates for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), will no longer be eligible to participate in parliamentary debates or receive their monthly salaries, said senior CPP lawmakers Chheang Vun and Cheam Yeap.
The government says the lawmakers are in violation of the election law by simultaneously holding membership in two parties at the same time.
Two members of the now disbanded Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP), who are now running as candidates for the Funcinpec party, have also been removed from the National Assembly as part of the decision, said Mr. Vun.
“We held discussions and the [permanent] committee agreed to freeze the members of three parties, Sam Rainsy Party, Human Rights Party and NRP, which makes 29 members altogether,” Mr. Vun said, adding that the lawmakers would be banned from Parliament until the country’s fifth democratic mandate begins in September.
“These people abused their mandate. Now they lost their membership. A lawmaker cannot be in two parties, and we don’t have any CNRP members elected to the National Assembly,” he added.
Stripping them of their parliamentary status also means that no opposition lawmakers will be present in the National Assembly on Friday when it debates a draft law on the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes.
Senior CPP lawmaker Mr. Yeap said that after the permanent committee’s discussion on Wednesday, National Assembly President Heng Samrin signed on to a petition that Mr. Yeap submitted on May 8, calling for a pay freeze of opposition parliamentarians representing the SRP and HRP while simultaneously running as CNRP candidates in the election.
“The president signed the paperwork for the wage freeze this morning after the discussion among 12 members of the committee,” he said.
Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled CNRP president who has been banned from competing in this year’s election due to an 11-year prison sentence he faces in the country, said that the decision was unconstitutional and revealed how frightened the CPP is of a united opposition movement.
“This is totally illegal because members of the National Assembly are elected by the people and only the people can put an end to their mandate. Heng Samrin is not the people therefore this petition is completely illegal,” he said.
The CPP lawmakers made the decision “because they are afraid of the growing popularity of support for the National Rescue Party, so they are doing whatever they can, including making illegal decisions, to try to undermine us,” he said.
While legal experts were mixed on the legality of the decision, political analysts and rights activists said that the move was not so much a legal matter as it was another example of the CPP using its political might to intimidate the opposition and manipulate the country’s legislative process.
“This is just for political gain—giving a hard time to the opposition,” said independent political analyst Chea Vannath.
“The ruling party might have a plausible reason to do so, but…it just shows that the democracy is not at a mature stage yet in Cambodia,” she added.
Thun Saray, the president of rights group Adhoc, said that the decision will prevent opposition members of Parliament from benefitting from their parliamentary protections and limit their financial means during the crucial monthlong campaign period, which begins in three weeks.
“The problem is they have immunity if they don’t withdraw their membership from Parliament. [Normally], they can do the campaign without any kind of physical violation or arbitrary arrest because they have immunity, and if they have that money [from their salaries] they can campaign also,” he said.
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the decision may also delegitimize a controversial law on the criminalization of the denial of Khmer Rouge atrocities set to be debated in the National Assembly on Friday.
“The decision affects the legitimacy of any law that might be enacted during this period, for instance the genocide denial law. If enacted without the participation of those [members of Parliament], that law will not have much legitimacy, to say the least,” he said.
The Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly states that “a candidate who resigns from his party shall automatically lose his membership in the National Assembly,” but says that if the resignation occurs more than six months before an election, the party may replace the parliamentarian.
Sok Sam Oeun, a lawyer and director of the of legal aid group Cambodia Defenders Project, said if the SRP and HRP parliamentarians were now registered with the CNRP, that meant they had left their original party. If other people were to take their place, it would need to be more then six months before the election.
“So, the government and CPP members can complain about that and control their salary,” he said.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, admitted that the legality of the decision was murky, but said that “the spirit of the law” was meant to allow members of the National Assembly to change parties without risking their former party’s seat in Parliament.
“The CPP is able to do anything for their benefit. During election time, they try to make members of the opposition face trouble,” he said.
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