The ruling Cambodian People’s Party yesterday said its insistence that dual citizens be barred as members of a revamped National Election Committee was not targeting rights activist Pung Chhiv Kek specifically, with one official improbably claiming the party was unaware Kek held any citizenship other than Cambodian.
Soon after the July 22 political agreement between the CPP and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party that stipulated the new NEC would be made up of four members chosen by each party and
one “consensus” candidate, Kek, president of rights group Licadho, was approved by both parties as the ninth member.
But in recent weeks, the ruling party has sought to add a provision to a law being drafted by the two parties to govern the new NEC that would preclude her from the position. Kek has Canadian and French citizenship in addition to Cambodian.
Speaking yesterday after yet another “final” meeting between working groups of the two parties that failed to reach any conclusive agreement on the law, CPP head negotiator Bin Chhin tried to explain his party’s rationale.
“[We] supported [Pung Chhiv Kek], but we did not know she had two nationalities,” he told reporters. “We knew nothing about what nationalities [she has].”
He also explained that the CPP did not want dual nationals on the NEC so as not to compromise its “independence and neutrality” and to shield it from outside pressure.
But CNRP working group head Kuoy Bunroeun disagreed that it was an issue.
“The individuals who have two nationalities, in some cases [it] was forced by circumstances. And [besides], we want people who have lived abroad who have qualifications to serve and work [for Cambodia], so when they are blocked like this, it could be considered discrimination,” he said.
Election reform advocate Koul Panha said the provision was a “politically motivated policy” that could pave the way for a similar restriction on the prime ministerial office.
Many prominent Cambodians, including King Norodom Sihamoni, opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol have dual nationalities.
Although the CNRP had previously disagreed with the CPP’s requirement that the secretary-general and deputy secretary-general of the NEC have at least five years’ experience in election administration, the parties did reach a compromise yesterday on this point.
Those officials will now have to have five years of general professional experience.
According to Bin Chhin, the parties also continue to disagree on a CPP request that neither NEC members nor the secretary-general or deputy secretary-general be relatives of political party leaders.
But CNRP deputy public affairs head Kem Monovithya, who had earlier been tipped as a potential NEC committee member, said there was no truth to the claim whatsoever.
Yesterday’s meeting was the first since two opposition activists were arrested last week in connection with a protest led by CNRP lawmakers on July 15 that turned violent.
On Friday, Meach Sovannara, the party’s information head, was denied bail by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Investigating Judge Keo Mony declined to explain why when reached yesterday.
The arrests were interpreted by some analysts and rights groups as being designed to exert pressure on the CNRP to concede to the CPP on the dual citizen issue, the last major stumbling block in negotiations.
After visiting Sovannara in prison yesterday, CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha said that the activist had implored his party not to give in at reform negotiations in exchange for his release.
“I told him that the CNRP’s [idea] was the same,” Sokha said in a video posted to his Facebook page, in which he also claimed that Interior Minister Sar Kheng had sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice about the issue after being contacted by party leader Sam Rainsy.
The government has vociferously denied that the arrests of the two opposition members and 13 other activists and monks picked up by authorities last week had anything to do with the negotiations.
Political commentator Ou Virak yesterday said he believed the CPP now has “time on their side” and is therefore trying to “frustrate” the opposition at reform talks, despite having initially agreed on Kek as the ninth NEC member days after July’s political deal. “They needed the [July 22] agreement to legitimise the government. They got what they want and now they are not in any hurry,” he said.
That deal stipulated that if no agreement is reached between the two parties on NEC members, the old NEC, which organised last July’s disputed election, will remain in place, putting the CNRP in an awkward position.
Nonetheless, the opposition are not entirely hamstrung, according to Virak.
“They can walk out at any time.… They could lead street protests with their [parliamentary] immunity. There’s nothing to stop them from doing those things [except] themselves.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TAING VIDA AND BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA