Since 1994, Phnom Penh resident Keat Chan Thorn religiously has watched the day-to-day workings of the National Assembly on state-run TVK.
And every day, it never ceases to amaze him how few people actually stand up to speak.
“They just sit and raise their hands to support those in their party,” Keat Chan Thorn said. “To me, they look like scarecrows.”
In fact, according to a recent study by the Center for Social Development, only 64 of 122 National Assembly members spoke from Oct 1, 1999 to Jan 12, 2000. Moreover, of those 64, more than half spoke less than 10 times, and many of these were procedural rather than substantive statements, according to the study.
In this last group is CPP stalwart Chea Soth, who ranks No 8 on the ruling CPP’s Central Committee. He admits he has very little to say.
“I am considered the old figure in the CPP, so I cannot resist the younger members of my party.
“It does not mean I do not know the law,” he said. “I have been a member of Parliament since the 1980s.” And, he added, “I am never absent.”
In Funcinpec Party, sentiments are similar among the non-speakers.
Cheam Oun does not even register on the center’s list. He says it’s a waste of time to say what others might also have said or be thinking. “I am old. I want the others to express their opinions.”
The problem, says the center’s president, Chea Vannath, is the country’s current proportional representation system in national elections that places emphasis on the party, not the individual.
In other words, citizens’ votes dictate how many members of each party will serve in office. Then the party decides who will fill those posts.
This leaves parliamentarians with “no accountability” to the people, she said, and makes them perform strictly according to party leaders’ wishes.
Chea Vannath also notes that this debate will have a bearing on how the upcoming commune elections are conducted. According to the center, 85 percent of Cambodians want individual representation.
Fear also could drive parliamentarians to silence, said opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay, who ranked No 1 on the Center’s list of the most frequent speakers. “They are afraid of saying something wrong,” he said. “They are worried they will be demoted or their reputations damaged if they offer negative opinions.”
Parliamentarians in Cambodia have immunity from prosecution. Yet few dispute that political intimidation still takes place, in a country that only recently is enjoying consistent peace.
In October, opposition parliamentarian Lon Phon was kidnapped in what London-based Amnesty International decried as a politically motivated incident. He was held for four days and eventually released on $140,000 ransom.
One month earlier, unnamed men ransacked the home and beat the wife of Nhiek Bun Chhay, a Funcinpec senator and a leader of the anti-government resistance after factional fighting in July 1997.
Government officials denied any involvement in either incident. Neither crime has been solved.
Whatever the theories on why parliamentarians keep quiet, one official defends lawmakers’ rights to keep their opinions to themselves.
Chan Ven, deputy secretary-general of the National Assembly, said it would be impractical if all members stood up to air their thoughts. “We cannot force them all to speak,” he says, adding that silence does not equal ignorance.
Another avid TV watcher, Kim Seng, says he can point out which parliamentarians sleep during lawmaking sessions and which manage to stay awake every day.
Now retired, the 65-year-old said he is frustrated with what he sees as a “lazy” Parliament. “They only show up to collect their salaries and then go home.”
Keat Chan Thorn agrees.
He said he wonders how any laws get passed in a country where half the members of Parliament have no input. “They are not fulfilling their duty to represent us, the citizens.”
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