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NGOs and political parties say they won’t attend Justice Ministry ‘explanation’ of new constitutional amendments

CPP parliamentarians attend a plenary session at the National Assembly to vote on ammendments to the Constitution, July 28, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang
CPP parliamentarians attend a plenary session at the National Assembly to vote on amendment to the Constitution, July 28, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

Civil society groups and opposition parties that have opposed newly passed constitutional amendments said they would be boycotting a meeting hosted by the Ministry of Justice this week intended to clarify the changes to eight articles.

The Ministry of Justice called for a three-day in-person meeting this week from August 2-4 in response to allegations that the amendments would weaken the Kingdom’s parliamentary system. The amendments were passed Thursday by the National Assembly, which is made up only of members of the ruling party.

More than 100 civil society groups and four political parties issued a statement opposing the CPP-proposed changes, saying that the amendments undermined the National Assembly’s role as a check on government power and weakened the rights of citizens.

Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said the group would not join the ministry’s meeting, as it could not bring about change.

“In democratic country, in order to make the law go smoothly, there should be a referendum among the public and relevant parties,” he said. “It does not mean that the law is approved and the explanation provided after.”

Korn Savang, an election observer with the monitoring group COMFREL said there was no need to meet as the National Assembly ignored the concerns raised by civil society ahead of the vote.

“The government needs to open public debate if they want [the law] to be comprehensive, which is an important thing in a democratic society even if the idea is not accepted,” he said.

Four opposition political parties — the Candlelight Party, Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP), Cambodia Reform Party, and Khmer Will Party — which have publicly opposed the amendments said they would not be attending either.

“If only to clarify, it is useless. It is too late as the law was adopted, and if there was a debate before the law passed, it would have been good,” said Thach Setha, Candlelight Party vice president.

Echoing Setha, the secretary-general of the GDP, Sam Inn, said that the minister of justice already offered explanations twice, meaning there was no need to learn more.  “Nothing to attend for the explanation,” he said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the meeting is simply to provide critics with more explanation to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

“Their criticism goes against the concept of the amendments, they do not understand the law and do not have a basic knowledge of the constitution,” he said. “If they do not participate, it means that everything they criticized was wrong, and if they were brave enough and believe what they said was right, they should come and talk openly.”

Malin said in general, the legislative procedure does not require consultation with civil society.

Minister of Justice Koeut Rith said last week that the amendments were needed to fill legal gaps in the constitution and ensure the functioning of the nation’s top institutions and rejected allegations that the amendments would weaken the Kingdom’s parliamentary system.

The most influential changes were to Articles 98 and 119 that focus on power transition.

Article 98 governs the Assembly’s power to dismiss governments and government officials. The article previously required 30 of the assembly’s 125 members to approve a dismissal. The amendment increased the threshold to one-third, or at least 41 lawmakers. The CPP currently holds all 125 assembly seats.

Article 119 regulates the Assembly’s rules on appointing prime ministers and forming new governments. Previously, the Assembly’s president and two vice presidents held that power. The amendment shifts responsibility to the party with the most National Assembly seats. 

Political analyst Em Sovannara said the government’s intention is to downplay the concerns among the public.

“I think the previous explanations are clearly understood,” he said. “And this would not eliminate the concerns because the ruling party and the National Assembly did not respond to the concerns of some people, political parties and civil society organizations.”