Cambodia’s National Assembly on Thursday approved a controversial amendment to the country’s Constitution that all but paves the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen to choose his son as his successor.
The amendment would change eight articles, two of which circumvent the National Assembly’s right to deliberate on prime ministerial selections or make it harder to remove a sitting prime minister.
Hun Sen, 69, has ruled the country since 1985, and has been grooming his son Hun Manet, 44, as his replacement.
The amendment must next be approved by the ruling party-controlled Senate, and then sent to the king and signed into law, but the steps are thought of as formalities at this point.
Cambodia’s Minister of Justice Koeut Rith defended the draft amendment during the assembly’s deliberations. He dismissed calls by NGOs and opposition political parties that the change should be set aside until after the next election.
“These petitions were filed by only four of the almost 50 parties registered with the Ministry of Interior. The four parties that claim that they don’t support the constitutional amendment is not a surprise,” he said.
“[Dissent] is normal for parties that don’t have policies aligned with the government, but we should take note that this amendment will ensure that the government can continue to function normally without any deadlock under any circumstances. This is what the people want,” said Koeut Rith.
He accused opposition parties of years’ past of using their elected seats to hold Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) hostage in the National Assembly in a bid to increase their political power.
“They used political deadlock in forming the government to bargain for power,” he said.
Currently, the CPP holds every seat in the National Assembly thanks to a Supreme Court decision to dissolve in 2017 the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had emerged as Hun Sen’s main opposition. This kicked off a five-year crackdown on government critics that forced many members into hiding or exile, or risk arrest and incarceration.
The decision also paved the way for the CPP to run the table in the 2018 general elections, downgrading the legislature to a de facto rubber stamp for the ruling party.
The amendment serves the prime minister more than the people of Cambodia, CNRP Vice President Eng Chhai Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“This is not about the public interest and the continuation of the country. This is just to avoid any crisis when [Hun Sen] transfers power to his son,” he said.
He said the political climate is disadvantageous for the Candlelight Party, which emerged from the remnants of the CNRP as the primary opposition to the CPP over the past year, and took one-fifth of the seats up for grabs in this year’s local comune elections. The new party will vie for a presence in the National Assembly with a strong performance in next year’s general election.
Even if it is unable to take a significant number of assembly seats, resistance to Hun Sen’s succession plans could conceivably still come from within the ruling party itself. The amendment also provides a safeguard against this possibility simply by reducing the power of the assembly.
“This amendment shows that they don’t trust each other,” Eng Chhai Eang said.
The CNRP has petitioned the king not to sign the draft amendment into law. In a statement released on Wednesday, the outlawed party also urged the people to prevent Hun Sen’s attempt to transfer power to his son by conducting a constitutional coup.
Ros Sotha, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of 22 local NGOs, told RFA he was disappointed by the proposed constitutional change.
“Laws can be amended, but this constitutional amendment was done by one party. It does not reflect the whole nation,” he said. “If the government wants more support, they have to resolve the current political crisis first and allow participation from other parties.”
Should the amendment become law it would be a “death sentence for democracy” in Cambodia, a statement by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said.
“The [Cambodian] government claims that the intention of the changes is to ensure a functioning government, but many of them are designed to cement the power of Hun Sen and his cronies by giving more power to the executive branch of government in detriment of the legislative,” former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said in the statement.
“If confirmed, this move would be just the latest example of Hun Sen trampling over democratic processes and the rights of millions of Cambodians just so he can further enrich his family and others who have benefitted from the corruption that has become rampant under his rule,” Kasit Piromya, who is now an APHR board member, said.
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