Elected more than a year ago, 55 opposition lawmakers yesterday afternoon formally took their oaths in front of King Norodom Sihamoni and top Buddhist clergy at the Royal Palace, ending a more than 10-month boycott of parliament.
After a tumultuous year in Cambodian politics that began with the watershed July 2013 election, the CNRP will take its seats in the National Assembly this Friday and begin debating laws, party officials said.
Freedom Park – the capital’s designated protest space, which has remained off limits since CNRP supporters were violently evicted from it in January – will officially reopen today or Thursday, they added.
While three opposition youths currently behind bars in connection to a July 15 protest that turned violent are expected to be released soon, their lawyer said yesterday evening that he had yet to receive a reply to a bail request filed with the court on Monday.
Leaving the palace yesterday after the 45-minute swearing-in ceremony, deputy CNRP leader Kem Sokha said the opposition will now be protected by parliamentary immunity, allowing them to counter the government without fear of legal threats.
“We have fulfilled what we promised, and we have fully received immunity as of today. We can continue our nonviolent struggle without a court system being [used to] threaten us or scare us any longer,” he said.
Before going to the palace yesterday, the 55 opposition lawmakers gathered at the National Assembly for photos. Dressed in ceremonial white, they posed on the steps of parliament holding up seven fingers, representing the party’s ballot number at last July’s election.
Son Chhay, the party’s chief whip, said that the 55 would take their seats on Friday, after a meeting with the CPP.
“Tomorrow, the members of parliament from both parties will meet to prepare the agenda for a session on August 8,” he said.
According to public affairs head Mu Sochua, after the new leadership of parliament is approved – which will see Kem Sokha appointed as first deputy president of the assembly and the CNRP take the heads of five commissions – the first order of business will be passing laws debated by the parties since they struck a deal to end the deadlock on July 22.
This will include amendments to enshrine an overhauled National Election Committee in the constitution. The new elections body, which will be made up of four ruling party appointees, four opposition appointees and a ninth consensus candidate, will also be regulated by a new law on its organisation and functioning, Sochua said.
“The current election law is going to be divided into two laws – the law on the organisation and functioning of the NEC . . . and another law will be about election procedures,” she said.
Rights activist Pung Chhiv Kek, the ninth NEC member, had demanded that parliamentary style immunity for all members of the elections body be enshrined in the constitution – which the CPP rejected.
Talks have produced a compromise that will see NEC members offered protection similar to that enjoyed by members of the Constitutional Council and the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, Sochua said.
Kek could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Sochua said the CNRP had explained the decision to her after Rainsy and Interior Minister Sar Kheng reached a final agreement on Monday.
“As far as I know, we have met with her and explained the technicality.”
According to a senior senator from the Sam Rainsy Party, the SRP and CPP will also meet today to talk about reshuffling leadership roles in the senate to give the opposition more power.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said yesterday that his party was happy to finally welcome the CNRP to parliament.
The opposition had labeled the assembly as “illegal” since it was inaugurated with only 68 CPP lawmakers present last September, but Yeap indicated the past year of vitriol was now considered water under the bridge.
“Stop speaking about what is in the past. Making accusations at each other is over now,” he said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche confirmed yesterday evening that he was still “waiting on the order” to bring down remaining barricades around Freedom park, but that it would “not take long”.
According to Sochua, opening Freedom Park after the CNRP lawmakers’ swearing in was part of the July 22 agreement.
In a joint statement yesterday, nine civil society organizations, including Comfrel, Adhoc and the Housing Rights Task Force, condemned the park’s long closure.
“At the time of the park’s inauguration, human rights groups expressed grave concerns that rather than increasing freedom of expression . . . [it] would place additional regulations or restriction on peaceful demonstrations,” the statement says.
“Unfortunately, these concerns have been realised. Instead of promoting freedom of expression, Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park has become a symbol of oppression.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY, VONG SOKHENG AND CHEANG SOKHA