Upon his return to Cambodia yesterday, Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy president Kem Sokha pledged to negotiate with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to find a way for opposition party leader Sam Rainsy to come home.
Rainsy, who has flown to Europe, faces two years in prison if he returns to the Kingdom, after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court recently ordered the enforcement of a long-dormant 2011 conviction for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
Accompanied by injured CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sakphea, who were bashed outside parliament on October 26 and have been receiving medical treatment in Bangkok, Sokha arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport yesterday afternoon.
Speaking to reporters outside, he stressed dialogue was vital to reducing the soaring political tension.
“We knew already that the political situation is bad, but we must change this to a good situation, [which won’t happen] until we sit and talk,” Sokha said.
“For the beaten lawmakers, we must continue to seek justice. I think that everything is possible [to resolve this], provided that we share good will. When we meet, we will talk about [Rainsy’s return]. I wish to negotiate soon.”
Responding yesterday, CPP spokesman Sous Yara said the ruling party was “open” to discussions and had established a working group to handle talks, but was waiting for the CNRP to set their agenda.
Sokha has been away since late last month, when he flew to Thailand to visit Chamroeun and Sakphea, who were attacked at the tail end of a pro-CPP rally calling for Sokha’s removal as the National Assembly’s first vice president.
Three soldiers have so far been detained over the assault. Meanwhile, a seeming political crackdown on the opposition has continued.
Following the protest, which was foreshadowed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and endorsed by senior military figures, Sokha was ousted as assembly vice president. Then, while visiting Japan and South Korea with Sokha, Rainsy was slapped with the arrest warrant. Three days later, his lawmaker status was stripped by the CPP.
Though he initially pledged to return and contest the conviction, handed down for alleging in 2008 that Namhong was responsible for deaths at a Khmer Rouge prison camp, Rainsy has instead flown to Europe, leaving his deputy and former political rival, to lead the party at home.
Yesterday evening, Sokha headed a meeting of more than 200 opposition members at the party’s headquarters to discuss short-, medium- and long-term goals.
Political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak said it was Sokha’s chance to show mature leadership.
“Can he elevate himself to a statesman’s level? So far he’s been great for attacking the government. It is time to see if he can shift focus, become a negotiator, become more sophisticated in terms of talking to his supporters.”
Meanwhile, Rainsy, who has also been summoned for questioning as an “accomplice” of detained opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour, who faces 17 years in prison over what the premier termed a “treasonous” Facebook post, has flagged a “possible resolution on Cambodia” to be submitted to the European Parliament.
Any motion censuring the Cambodian government’s treatment of the opposition would be “very useful” as it would guide the foreign policy of the EU’s 28 member states, Rainsy said via email yesterday.
Markus Karbaum, a political consultant based in Germany specialising in Cambodia, said a “symbolic” resolution in the EU parliament was not the “quick success” Rainsy needed to vindicate staying abroad.
Similar past campaigns, he said, “did not have a major impact” and, somewhat ironically, Rainsy’s decision not to return and face charges may hurt his chances for foreign action.
“Only with the opposition leader in prison would there be a real chance for a temporary suspension of the EU’s ‘Everything But Arms’ [duty free import] initiative and its development cooperation agreement”.