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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Royal roundtable fails to break deadlock

Royal roundtable fails to break deadlock

SIEM REAP - There was hope that getting all the major players to sit in front of

Papa and discuss their differences would provide the nudge needed to push Cambodia

out of post-election turmoil and into a new coalition government.

But after the first day of a Sept 5-7 meeting at King Norodom Sihanouk's Siem Reap

residence hopes had already begun to fade as the monarch's bickering guests failed

to reach any common ground. By the third day moods were even darker as events in

Phnom Penh - the grenade attack against Hun Sen's home in the capital and rumors

of Sam Rainsy's imminent arrest - ensured there would be no progress at the negotiating

table.

At the center of the failed talks - attended by the CPP, Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy

Party, the National Election Committee and the Constitutional Council - sat a frustrated

King Sihanouk.

"He was sad," one delegate said of the King's mood. "I think he is

afraid that his country is falling into turmoil."

Out of the frustration came word from an SRP delegate, party secretary-general Eng

Chhay Eang, that Sihanouk said he would abdicate the throne - a threat often made

during past crises -if the three parties could not come to terms by the deadline

for the opening of the new National Assembly - Sept 24.

"He said that 'As long as my children cannot agree, I cannot form the National

Assembly,'" Funcinpec delegate Tol Lah said, confirming the abdication threat.

"If the King abdicates then there will be no legal institutions left in the

country."

The King must personally convene the National Assembly's first session. The danger

of being embarassed by a no show from any of the three parties weighed heavily enough

on the monarch's mind for him to request oaths from all MP-elects to show up at parliament,

said Information Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith, who did not attend the meetings

but acted as spokesman for the CPP delegates.

But the CPP, citing the internal regulations of the Assembly, now contends that quorum

is not neccessary for the opening ceremony and that the King could begin the session

without worry. After the opening, he conceded, no votes could be taken without a

quorum of 84 members.

Kanharith also suggested that the CPP has negotiated with enough opposition MPs to

join the CPP in a two-thirds vote neccessary to form the government, but that some

potential defectors won't break ranks unless their votes are secret - a change in

procedure that would require a constiutional amendment.

One meeting insider said the King spoke openly of the CPP's attempts to buy off opposition

MPs, perhaps as a warning to the opposition. "He said that he had heard that

ten Funcinpec MPs and six from the Sam Rainsy Party had been convinced to join,"

the delegate said on condition of anonymity, noting that if the numbers were correct

the CPP would only need four more to meet quorum.

Several delegates reported that the impasse boiled down to Funcinpec and the SRP

being only interested in discussing election-related complaints, which the members

of the Constitutional Council insisted were too late to address, while the CPP was

only interested in negotiating a political settlement that would allow the parliament

to meet on time to form a new government.

Funcinpec and the SRP resisted suggestions from Second Prime Minister Hun Sen - who

met with the King a few days before and remained in Siem Reap to keep a close eye

on the meetings - that technical discussions relating to the election should be abandoned

in favor of top-level negotiations to form the government.

Instead, the opposition came to Siem Reap armed with four familiar election-related

demands: ballot recounts in randomly selected communes where fraud was suspected;

recounts in every commune of Kampong Thom because of the CPP's narrow victory over

Funcinpec for the province's sixth seat; an examination of the disputed formula chosen

to allocate Assembly seats; and a reconciliation of all the ballots used and unused

during the election.

"We came with a good intention to solve the technical questions, but the other

side doesn't want to listen to our requests," Funcinpec Secretary-General Tol

Lah complained after the talks had concluded. "CPP during the whole three days

did not seem interested in talking to us. They seemed more interested in pressuring

the King to convene the National Assembly."

Kanharith argued that the CPP did not have much to contribute because the technical

issues were matters to be discussed between the opposition and the two independent

bodies that had rejected their complaints, the NEC and the Constitutional Council.

Kanharith said the CPP was much more active when dicussions turned to the formation

of the parliament and the government. He warned that "the door was still open"

to the opposition for talks on a coalition government, but that it was quickly closing.

"If they continue on these [technical] points we could reach a situation where

there cannot be any U-turn," he said.

Kanharith said the CPP's frustrations were focused on the SRP, whom he accused of

"trying to block everything". Funcinpec, he claimed, was merely using the

SRP and the Sam Rainsy-led demonstrations in Phnom Penh to gain concessions from

the ruling party.

Funcinpec, however, remained united with the SRP and contended that the party will

be open to talks on a coalition only after a compromise on the technical issues.

"We never say no to the National Assembly, we never say no to the government...

but we have to clear the air before we can work honestly together," Tol Lah

said.

Funcinpec delegates said they had gained one concession from the NEC - a promise

to look into the seat allocation mess and a reconciliation of ballots. However, NEC

sources said Funcinpec had misunderstood what was said in the meeting and that the

so-called concession did not represent a significant change in the NEC's position.

A ballot reconciliation has already been done by the NEC, according to election technicians,

and less than 30 ballots of the 9 million printed are unaccounted for. Funcinpec

delegate Pok Than said he was aware of the unpublicized ballot accounting, but added

that it was not enough to satisfy the party.

"It's easy to make a list, but we want to reconcile the list by seeing the actual

ballots," he said.

On the final day of the meeting, the King urged the political party delegates to

return to Phnom Penh and help him make one last-ditch effort to break the deadlock,

the Funcinpec delegation said at the Siem Reap airport.

"Now he would like us to inform our respective leaders to find a way to solve

the problem," Tol Lah said. "He suggested that the most practical way is

for the three leaders [of Funcinpec, the CPP and the SRP] to meet... I will do my

duty and inform my leader."

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