A nearly five-hour meeting between the ruling and opposition parties yesterday resulted in an agreement to reform the embattled electoral process, end protest violence and continue negotiations before the National Assembly is scheduled to sit on Monday.
But the rare consensus on three points was equally notable for its omissions.
When the doors of the conference room opened at 1:45pm, Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy emerged smiling and offered a warm handshake for the cameras before leaving without a word.
A statement signed by the pair and four other high-ranking members of both parties notes that they have agreed to adhere to stanch protest violence, “establish a mechanism for the reform of the electoral affairs in the future”, and continue talks. The bulk of the statement is devoted to addressing a letter sent by King Norodom Sihamoni yesterday in which he urged both protesters and authorities to refrain from using force for the sake of national stability.
Speaking to reporters after the leaders had left, both Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Prak Sokhon and Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann characterised the meetings as positive.
“The length of the meeting means that we were happy to exchange opinions for discussion, and it was a new spirit [of cooperation] toward the process to resolve all problems of our nation,” Sokhon said.
Sovann said he felt the meeting “was very fruitful”.
But the pair gave markedly different accounts of the progress, and both sides claimed to be standing firm on the question of a long-discussed electoral investigation.
Negotiations between the parties have twice fallen apart over the issue of an independent investigating committee. The three-day mass demonstrations that started on Sunday were primarily aimed at pushing the CPP to agree to a joint inquiry into the electoral irregularities, which the CNRP says cost them the election.
Sovann yesterday said the opposition would “still continue to demand the formation of an investigation commission to find justice for the people. But both parties, they have to think to find a middle way to the agreement point”.
Sokhon, meanwhile, insisted the stance of the CPP was unwavering on the question of a committee, which he characterised as “unlawful”.
And while the statement gave only the briefest of mentions to the electoral reform “mechanism”, the CNRP’s Sovann said they had agreed to concrete changes.
“We need to reform the NEC; we need to amend some laws related to the election, and also we have to have new voter lists and so on and so on,” he told reporters.
Asked if the agreement meant the party had agreed to join the National Assembly, Sovann insisted they had made no such guarantee.
The CPP, for its part, would sit regardless, according to Sokhon.
“Whether the CNRP attends or not, the stance of the CPP [is to move forward].”
Though the legalities have been questioned, the ruling party has frequently maintained it can lawfully take all 123 seats if the CNRP fails to show at the opening session. Analysts, however, have predicted that the party would be loath to follow through on such threats.
At Freedom Park yesterday afternoon, Sovann and later Rainsy addressed the crowd of several thousand – receiving roars as they gave their account of the meetings.
“It’s what the people want to see – them coming together and working for the people,” political analyst Chea Vannath said. “I am optimistic that the solutions will work out for the CNRP and CPP … but I am not too optimistic to say everything will be smooth.”
In a statement issued by the Situation Room – a coalition of NGOs focused on election issues – the group “applauded” the meeting and urged the parties to focus their attention on concrete reforms of government institutions.
But others were less sanguine at the close of the day.
“If you look at the length and the results, I think it’s a very positive sign … [but], so far, the only thing of any substance agreed on was to reform the future of elections,” said Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak, who lambasted the parties’ decision to leave the meeting room while negotiations were still ongoing.
“They should have met ’til midnight. They should have packed lunch … but this is Cambodia – the politicians don’t sacrifice much and the people sacrifice everything.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA