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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Agreement a tough sell

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands in front of the Senate
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands in front of the Senate, where a meeting to end the political deadlock took place on Tuesday. Heng Chivoan

Agreement a tough sell

Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy are to meet with King Norodom Sihamoni at the Royal Palace today to officially inform him of the political agreement reached earlier this week that brought an end to a nearly one-year deadlock.

By doing so, they will kick-start a series of events that could see the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s 55 lawmakers – including Rainsy, who announced yesterday he would swap in for Kampong Cham lawmaker-elect Kuoy Bunroeun – take their oaths and swear in to parliament within a matter of days.

But not all are happy.

Many CNRP supporters have been voicing their discontent with the agreement on social media and on radio, with a common charge being that the opposition will be overrun by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in parliament.

Yin Hing, 55, and her husband Hean La, 65, travelled from Kep province to camp out with the CNRP at Freedom Park last year during the party’s rolling post-election protests that were abruptly ended after a violent crackdown by authorities in early January. The farmers say they are worried that by choosing to work with the CPP, the CNRP is at risk of being marginalised.

“I am not happy with [this agreement], because I do not have any confidence in the Cambodian People’s Party, because I think back to the Funcinpec regime,” Hing said, referring to the once-dominant royalist party which was bullied into a power-sharing agreement with the CPP after the 1993 election. Funcinpec’s political power steadily eroded in successive coalitions with Hun Sen’s party.

“The CPP has power, and we do not have any power at all. Whatever the CPP wants to do, they will be able to do.”

Rainsy after the deadlock

Sim Vuthy, a Phnom Penh market vendor and fervent opposition supporter, also said he was afraid that the CNRP, like Funcinpec, would not stand up to the CPP in parliament and instead adopt their ways.

“Honestly, my heart is not happy, because I am afraid that [the CNRP] will also become corrupt.”

Other supporters, however, were cautiously optimistic.

Phak Vannak, who represents a community in Kampong Speu’s Omlaing commune that is locked in an ongoing land dispute with a sugar company owned by tycoon Ly Yong Phat, said he hoped that the victims of land grabs would no longer be ignored in parliament with the CNRP present.

“Those two parties have to respect human rights. And I would like to say to the CNRP: Please don’t think about power too much. Think about the people who are the victims so they can improve their futures.”

Soem Sim, a teacher from Kampong Cham who approved of the deal but remained wary of CPP “tricks”, agreed.

“[The CNRP] must work hard for people by daring to speak out. When they see something wrong, they must say something’s wrong, and when they see something right, they must say something’s right.”

Among the political elite close to the party, there also appears to be discord about whether Tuesday’s agreement was the right decision.

“To me it wasn’t a negotiation. It was just the CPP forcing the CNRP to accept whatever they wanted,” said Prince Sisowath Thomico, who ran unsuccessfully with the party last July, referring to the fact that eight CNRP officials were in prison as the talks took place.

Thomico believes the assembly boycott should have continued, given a CPP majority in parliament will mean “nothing will change with this agreement”.

“There is [also] one thing we have forgotten over the last few months. We have forgotten about justice and transparency around the results of the elections. If we do not take justice and transparency about the elections, we have nothing and the deal is completely meaningless,” he added.

Mu Sochua, a senior party figure and one of the opposition officials released from Prey Sar prison hours after the deal was struck on Tuesday, said yesterday that the party was well aware that many people were unhappy.

While it would “take a few days and maybe weeks until this uncertainty period will subside”, it was clear there were serious misconceptions among the public, she said.

Chief among these, Sochua continued, is that many mistakenly believe the CNRP is joining some sort of coalition with the CPP, rather than simply taking their seats in the assembly.

“They think we are going into the executive branch, which is the government itself, [but] if you look at the agreement, it is only about the National Assembly as an institution. They have had many bitter experiences with Funcinpec, but we are not Funcinpec, and they know that.”

The agreement also provides for significant changes to national institutions and the internal rules of parliament, she said, paving the way for much-needed reforms and a formal opposition role in parliament.

“If we stay out of that house, which is the parliament, we will be part of the problem instead of part of the solution,” she said.

If all goes to plan, according to Rainsy, the CNRP could take its seats in a specially convened assembly session on Monday, a date that would mark the first anniversary of last year’s election.

It would be a symbolic move that would only further reinforce the scripted feel of events of the past week or so that brought such a seemingly swift end to a lengthy impasse.

“[After the audience with the King], we would swear in and take our oath in the following days. So it’s a matter of days, at most one week. Then things will be settled for us to go to the National Assembly [for] a special session because the National Assembly is now in recess,” Rainsy said yesterday.

The party leader was not allowed to run in the election, but told local media yesterday he will swap in for the parliament seat of Bunrouen, who would become one of the opposition’s four appointees to the NEC.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP deputy president and the more hard-line of the pair, has remained silent since Rainsy announced the “final talks” on Sunday. He will take the first deputy presidency position in the assembly that the CNRP received as part of Tuesday’s deal.

Chheang Vun, a senior ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker and the Assembly’s spokesman, said yesterday he could not confirm whether a special session could be arranged for the CNRP to take their seats.

Separately, the international community has welcomed the rapprochement. Yesterday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement that his country hoped that with the agreement, “national reconciliation and the prompt normalisation of the National Assembly will be achieved” in order to progress towards reforms.

Surya Subedi, the UN rights envoy to Cambodia, said that while both parties deserved congratulations, “the agreement reached on the National Election Committee only marks the beginning of the true work of reforming the State institutions”.

The US Embassy said on Tuesday that “hopefully that these developments will lay the groundwork for continued reform and enable both parties to work together for the advancement of democracy in Cambodia”.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY WILL JACKSON, MAY TITTHARA AND DAVID BOYLE

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