CAMBODIA: National Congress where the ruled and rulers meet must not be a still-born constitutional institution

Cambodia’s constitution which the Constituent Assembly issued from the UN-organised election had adopted in 1993 has established an institution of direct democracy called National Congress. This is the congress of people where, according to Article 147 of the Constitution, Cambodians meet their rulers “to be directly informed of various matters of national interest” and “to raise issues and make proposals for the state authorities to address.” The Prime Minister is to convene this congress once a year in early December and, according to Article 148, it is to be chaired by the King of Cambodia. 

Since 1993 this congress has never been held and there has been mounting pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen to convene it. On 4 March 2009, in a public speech, he rebuffed the pressure instead of looking for ways to fulfill his constitutional duty and convene the congress. He said that “it is impossible to make the law” on its organization and functioning as required and “it is impossible to hold the National Congress.” 

Referring to the existence of at least 50 registered political parties which would take advantage of the congress, he expressed fears that “holding it could cause turmoil in the system” of government. According to him, the congress was unnecessary when his party, the Cambodian People’s Party, already received enough input from its parliamentarians to need to convene the congress to stay in touch with the people. He concluded that “it would be better to remove it from the Constitution altogether” and suggested that, with its majority in the Parliament, his party could amend the Constitution to that effect. 

The reasons Hun Sen has put forward to scotch this important institution of democracy are hardly plausible. This institution is not a brand new one in Cambodia. The National Congress was first instituted as a constitutional institution in 1958. It was held every six months in an open space next to the Royal Palace in the centre of the capital. The Head of State, Prince Sihanouk, chaired each congress which lasted several days at a time. Thousands of people from every corner of the country participated in it with enthusiasm, heard their government’s report on national affairs, made recommendations and challenged corrupt officials. There was no turmoil, but rather peace and order throughout every congress. 

To discharge his constitutional duty, Hun Sen needs simply to draw on that past experience to make the law on the organisation and functioning of the National Congress and to hold it in an orderly manner. After all, the present constitutional provisions on the National Congress are almost the exact copy of those that had instituted its predecessor in 1958. 

However, the arrangements and practices in the past may not entirely fit the new circumstances of the country, and more needs to be done to ensure a smooth-running, trouble-free congress. In the first place, the country’s total population has doubled and the population of Phnom Penh, which provided the most active participants in the past, has almost tripled. Proportionally speaking, more people than in the past are politically conscious and may be willing to participate in the congress. People are more polarized than in the past. 

The larger number of participants requires a larger venue, good organization so as to give more people an opportunity to voice their opinion, and also effective crowd control. The biggest venue Cambodia is the Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh which can seat up to 100,000 people. Participation may be limited to this number, either through local registration of participants on a first-come, first-served basis or with random-sampling based on electoral rolls. 

Rules of procedure could be devised to enable participants to meet in harmony, voice their opinion and engage in debates in harmony and to break up in harmony. 

As for crowd control there does not seem to be an insurmountable problem. So far, public gatherings, be they public demonstrations or protests, have been orderly. The trouble and disorder that have happened have been mainly caused by crackdowns by public forces. Mass meetings comprising thousands and even tens of thousands of people at a time, including the one organised by the ruling party in early January 2009, have been held in an orderly manner in the Olympic stadium. Additional fences may need to be erected to help this crowd control. 

The real obstacle to holding the National Congress may be something else, and it is curious to note that, in the same statement, Hun Sen also said that if he were to convene a National Congress, he would only invite his party’s supporters. This part of the statement is more significant and should indicate he was not so sure he and his security forces could prevent criticism from being voiced in the congress and in his presence. He could face embarrassment to say the least.

When there is no insurmountable technical obstacle to the organization of an annual National Congress, the killing of this institution of direct democracy through a constitutional amendment is a serious violation of the Cambodian people’s constitutional rights to freedom of expression (Art. 41), and to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation and have state authorities seriously consider all their proposals (Art.35), through the denial of an important venue for the exercise of these rights.

Furthermore, for a country where Buddhism is the state religion, the killing of this venue is also a derogation of one of the seven principles the Buddha taught a powerful and strong people called the Vajjians for their continued prosperity, a principle that may have inspired the establishment of the National Congress in 1958. The Buddha said that “as long as the Vajjians hold regular and frequent assemblies…as long as they meet in harmony, carry on their business in harmony and end in harmony they may be expected to prosper and not decline.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen should honour his country’s international human rights obligations by meeting the constitutional rights of the Cambodian people. He should positively consider the Buddhist principle of governance above. He should abandon his scheme to remove the National Congress from the Constitution. He should instead fulfill his constitutional duty by making a law on its organization and functioning and the related rules of procedure, and convening this congress at the earliest possible moment. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-057-2009
Countries : Cambodia,