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'Culture of Fear' Pervades Assembly, Group Finds

The Center for Social Development said Tuesday it was concerned over "deteriorating freedom speech" and "troubling self-censorship" in the National Assembly, following a month observing the nation's lawmaking body.

Six observers monitored the National Assembly between March 21 and June 26, finding that parliamentarians who spoke out over the country's ills were shouted down by ruling party representatives.

Members from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party who criticized the Assembly, the government or draft laws under debate were "effectively silenced" and reprimanded for "disrespecting internal regulations" and "wasting time," the Center said in a statement.

Some draft laws offered up by members not of the Cambodian People's Party were "completely rejected," the Center said.

"Due to the National Assembly's routine silencing and intimidation of parliamentarians who oppose the current government's agenda, it has stifled its own internal debate and imposed a culture of fear and self-censorship," the Center said.

National Assembly President Heng Samrin, from the ruling party, said the group's findings "cannot be accepted." "The National Assembly does not restrict anything," he said. "Having freedom and democracy means there is expression of opinion. But you speak on the subject and speak correctly according to the given time.

The National Assembly does not pressure [anyone], does not oppress freedom."

CPP legislator Chiem Yeap called the findings "destructive criticism."

But the Center's executive director, Seng Theary, said her monitors found that "courageous people" went unprotected in the Assembly.

Ruling party lawmakers "should not dismiss those opinions, and should not think that this is an opposition party, a royalist party, any party," she said.

Of the National Assembly's 123 seats, the CPP holds 73, Funcinpec 26 and SRP 24.