Constitution Day marked by praise and criticism4 min read

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Police and district security guards block protesters from gathering at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh on September 7. Panha Chhorpoan
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The government on September 23 marked Constitution Day by touting the charter as a foundation of peace and stability, while civil society groups said basic rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution were not being upheld.

Marking the 27th Constitution Day, which falls on September 24, Constitutional Council of Cambodia President Im Chhun Lim said at an event the previous day that the document provided the foundation for political stability through a democratic multiple-party system.

“Until now there has been full peace and national stability, including economic growth during the past two decades,” he said.

Chhun Lim said that detractors in and outside of Cambodia who question whether Cambodia is a functioning multiple-party democracy were not beneficial to the country’s progress.

“An evaluation of the implementation of the Constitution in the Kingdom of Cambodia based on a one-sided judgment of the above values will lead to injustice despite the many great achievements of the nation,” he said.

He added that to assess whether the Constitution has been applied in a fair and equitable way, Cambodian society needs to consider the future of the country and its traditions. 

Constitutional Council of Cambodia President Im Chhun Lim presides over a meeting in Phnom Penh on September 23 ahead of Constitution Day. Panha Chhorpoan

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that since the Paris Peace Agreement ended the political crisis in Cambodia in 1991, and the Constitution established two years later, Cambodia has become a unified nation.

 “Laws and decisions of state institutions need to comply with the Constitution absolutely. The main points are clearly stated in the Constitution of Cambodia to absolutely respect the constitutional monarchy, liberal democracy and pluralism,” he wrote in a post on Facebook.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), said that although Cambodian citizens’ constitutional rights should be upheld at all costs, some, such as fundamental freedoms, have been “largely neglected and even willingly violated.”

“Recent weeks have seen the human rights situation in Cambodia deteriorate further, representing a detrimental divergence from the promises of our Constitution,” she said via email. “Despite them being enshrined in the Constitution, fundamental freedoms including the freedoms of expression (Article 41), association and peaceful assembly (Article 42), continue to be regularly infringed upon. Numbers of restrictions of freedom of expression, particularly online, continue to climb, assemblies are increasingly being met with excessive use of force by the state, and any association deemed to be critical of the government is targeted.”

She acknowledged that some improvements were being made to strengthen constitutional rights, such as efforts to abolish discrimination against women, and to increase fair trial rights and freedom of information.

“Yet, this relative protection of some constitutional rights is insufficient. The Constitution was not designed to be a document partially respected, rather, every constitutional right should be guaranteed equally and in full to all citizens,” she said.

Chin Malin, vice president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said on September 23 he was not surprised that CCHR had criticized the government’s record regarding citizens’ freedom of expression.

“We are used to this because as we always say, their reports never have any in-depth analysis of the implementation of the right to freedom of expression, especially as it pertains to the implementation of the law in Cambodia,” he said.

Malin said that the application of the Constitution had improved each year since it was established, noting that the implementation is not the same as in Western countries but instead follows Cambodia’s own cultural norms.

 “We have been implementing all the foundations and principles in the Constitution… that uphold national interests which are an important element of democracy, rights and freedoms,” he said. 

Political analyst Meas Nee disagreed, saying that in reality, Cambodian citizens’ rights are not fully upheld in line with the Constitution, noting that some amendments to laws have even restricted fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.

“Our country does not have institutions that value independence and instead find loopholes to enacting the Constitution,” he said, adding that many people have been critical of the government’s failure to uphold basic rights as stipulated in the law.

Since the arrest of union leader Rong Chhun on July 31, 19 activists, artists, and human rights defenders have been detained for exercising their constitutional rights, according to Licadho, which released a timeline detailing each arrest on September 22.

“This relentless crackdown began with the nighttime arrest of union leader Rong Chhun…. Over the next month and a half, activists who publicly called for Chhun’s release were arrested and sent to pre-trial detention,” the statement from the human rights group says.

“The crackdown soon extended beyond activists calling for Rong Chhun’s release. Environmental activists, young rappers and a Buddhist monk have all been imprisoned for speaking out about issues affecting their country and communities,” it continued, adding that former members of the now-dissolved CNRP are also among those to have been recently jailed.

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