Less than a week before the first anniversary of last July’s disputed national election, Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy will sit face to face this morning for “final talks” aimed at ending the longest post-election stalemate in Cambodian history.
Eight Cambodia National Rescue Party politicians and officials, who have been labelled “political hostages” by some rights groups, remain behind bars after a protest they led turned violent last week.
Rainsy, who arrived on Saturday from Europe, has told supporters that only a meeting with Hun Sen can set them free and defuse political tension.
But both parties say they want to go further and finally end the deadlock that has seen opposition lawmakers ride out a record boycott of parliament.
“In the spirit of national reconciliation and national unity, based on respect of national interests and the people, the Cambodian People’s Party and Cambodia National Rescue Party have agreed together to resolve and end the critical post-election crisis,” a joint statement from the parties released late on Sunday says.
Eight members from each party will attend the talks, with Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and First Vice Chairman of the Senate Say Chhum leading the CPP side.
The CNRP side will be led by Rainsy, party deputy leader Kem Sokha and senior official Pol Ham.
The basis for the talks will be an agreement made by Rainsy and Hun Sen the last time a deal appeared nigh – in early April.
At that time, a lengthy phone call between the pair led to an agreement in principle to a February 2018 National Assembly election, a February 2017 commune election and the creation of a new, independent National Election Committee.
They also agreed to the CNRP receiving a number of top assembly positions – six of 13 standing committee slots – when it ends its boycott, which started in September.
But no deal was ever inked, and at the time Hun Sen accused Kem Sokha, who was abroad, of being “obstinate” and holding back an agreement because he opposed moving the election up just five months.
Rainsy then denied any agreement had been made with the premier, insisting that he and Sokha were “like one person” who could not be split and that the party would hold out for an election at least a year ahead of schedule.
But as he posted the joint statement on his Facebook page late on Sunday night, Rainsy explicitly referred to the February 2018 election date as being part of the basis for today’s discussions.
Despite numerous calls, Sokha could not be reached for comment yesterday, while Rainsy declined to comment ahead of the talks.
However, Sokha’s daughter, CNRP deputy public affairs head Kem Monovithya, insisted that “the official statement said nothing about the election date or what we will be talking about”.
“Talks haven’t started yet, so there can’t be agreement,” she said, declining to comment on Rainsy’s post.
Meach Sovannara, head of the CNRP’s information department, denied that there was any internal disagreement as to what was on the table.
“There is no [controversy]. Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are only one person. After both leaders had a discussion, the decision was sent to the permanent committee for approval,” he said.
Opposition whip Son Chhay added that the election date was of secondary importance. “We put all our effort to have an election [that is] fully independent. That is the main concern. If we can get that, it would be a great achievement for the country.”
Other issues on the table include media and parliamentary reform, though Hun Sen has already agreed to grant a TV licence to an opposition-aligned operator.
On Saturday, Sokha said the party would also propose a new 3-3-3 formula regarding even representation of members of the new NEC during talks.
A fundamental disagreement between the parties in past sit-downs has related to the composition of the committee, specifically how many members of parliament should be required to approve it.
The new proposal would involve the NEC’s nine members being split between the CNRP, the CPP and civil society groups, meaning that nobody would be able to control it.
“We want an NEC which does not serve any party,” Sokha said in a Facebook post.
“This is a proposal of the Cambodia National Rescue Party that is very reasonable and can inspire confidence. Civil society knows about electoral issues and they can join us.”
Prum Sokha, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry and a CPP negotiator, declined to comment on specifics of what would be discussed today.
“What he [Sokha] said is up to him. We do not yet say. We will negotiate based on the agreements previously made between the two parties, especially the agreement on April 9 between Samdech Techo Hun Sen and Excellency Sam Rainsy.”
Separately, a group of 30 civil society groups yesterday held a press conference to condemn the continued detention of seven CNRP lawmakers-elect and a party activist as “completely politically motivated”.
“The arrest of opposition lawmakers-elect and their activists is to use them as hostages for negotiations,” said Ny Chakrya, head of human rights and legal aid at rights group Adhoc.
“If the negotiation can find a political solution, I think the state of freedom of expression will normalise and armed forces will be withdrawn from Freedom Park. And the judicial system will be able to set free the detainees.”
Political analyst Kem Ley also called the politicians at Prey Sar prison “a bargaining chip” that had tipped the balance of power at the negotiating table firmly in the CPP’s favour.
“I think [the detainees] will be released on bail and then put through the court system and maybe get a pardon from the King. It’s just a political game that [the CPP] has always done.”
But senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that whether the politicians were released or not would depend solely on the court, as the ruling party has no control over it.
“Which article states that the court is under the CPP? We cannot do anything.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA, ALICE CUDDY AND BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA