LICADHO president Pung Chhiv Kek has conditionally accepted a position as the ninth member of a reformed election body following a cross-party meeting yesterday, paving the way for the opposition to take its seats in parliament a year after Cambodia’s disputed election.
Kek, 71, said in a letter to both parties yesterday that she would accept the offer of the “consensus” position if the independence of the overhauled National Election Committee was assured.
“I will implement the work of the NEC independently and neutrally,” she said in the letter. “I will try to work based on my ideals, according to the constitution, for justice for all people in Cambodia.”
She also requested latitude in the areas of fundraising and recruitment for NEC staff, while seeking to protect the group’s ability to act independently by asking for “immunity”. It was not immediately clear if that safeguard would resemble existing parliamentary immunity privileges enjoyed by lawmakers.
“I hope that members of the NEC will receive the guarantee of immunity and the autonomy to make decisions and conduct its business,” she said. “The NEC has the right to recruit skilled and expert staff and receive independent donations and other funding both locally and overseas.”
Kek, who gained a medical degree in France with the civil unrest of 1968 as a backdrop, was one of 1,000 women jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her commitment to human rights in Cambodia.
Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy confirmed that the letter from Kek outlining a set of conditions for her to accept the job had been received and that the party had issued a response.
“I have received her letter and my vice president [Kem Sokha] and I have replied to her, saying that we will do our best with the consensus to ensure that her demands be met when she fulfills her duties,” he said.
Rainsy and Sokha jointly penned a reply to Kek yesterday, saying that the party agreed to all of her demands.
“In every circumstance, the [Cambodia] National Rescue Party would like to support completely the proposals and requests with spirit and conscience for [Kek] to take the high responsibility of guaranteeing the National Election Committee as an independent institution, which has autonomy in making decisions and other activities to guarantee elections be free, fair and just,” the letter read.
On Monday evening, Prime Minister Hun Sen, without specifically addressing the demands, appeared to accept them in welcoming Kek to her new position.
"I already received your letter on July 28 that you confirmed to agree to take the position ... The Cambodian People's Party welcome you to your position as the ninth member of the National Election Committee in the near future," the premier said in a statement posted to the CPP's official website.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Kek had been approached for the job after Hun Sen met with Rainsy yesterday prior to a session of parliament called to approve Rainsy as an elected member for a seat in Kampong Cham province.
“Before the extraordinary session of the National Assembly, Samdech Hun Sen spoke with Excellency Sam Rainsy and Excellency Kem Sokha for about 10 minutes . . . and the two leaders chose Mrs Pung Chhiv Kek,” he said.
The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, known as Licadho, was founded by Kek in 1992 after she helped broker the Paris Peace Agreement between Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihanouk (then a prince), ending the 1980s civil war of the 1980s.
Kem Ley, a political analyst and board member of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, was cautiously optimistic about the decision.
“I think Pung Kek so far has helped the government in terms of negotiations; she performed well in terms of human rights protection in Cambodia,” he said. “For me, it is at least better than before. It’s a reasonable choice. It’s good, but we need to still have a national election.”
Hun Sen and Rainsy last week reached an accord ending nearly a year of political deadlock and opening the door for the CNRP to end its boycott of the National Assembly.
Opposition leaders had maintained that they would not enter parliament until the ninth member of the NEC was agreed upon and laws and regulations governing how the legislature and elections operate were amended.
Yesterday’s announcement brings this a step closer and could result in the 55 elected opposition members swearing in before King Norodom Sihamoni in the coming days.
Yeap said that a formal invitation for the CNRP to attend the swearing-in ceremony had already been issued.
“All 55 elected members of the CNRP will go to the Royal Palace to take the oath from the King and high monks,” he said. “They will become full members of parliament.”
Following Rainsy’s acceptance as an opposition lawmaker-elect, he told reporters gathered at parliament that he hoped a new phase of Cambodian history had begun.
“Today I am happy to tell people that the political crisis in Cambodia in principle and spirit is already over. There remain a few procedures, which will be completed soon,” he said.
“I hope it is a new phase in our Cambodian history that strengthens national unity in order to defend our national interests.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHEANG SOKHA AND ALICE CUDDY