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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Talks, rockets and a brand new parliament

Talks, rockets and a brand new parliament

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LAST PARLIAMENT OF THE CENTURY
MPs are sworn in to the National Assembly in front of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Sept 24.

SIEM REAP Somehow, Cam-bodia's new National Assembly was convened at Angkor Wat on Sept 24.

But other than that there wasn't much sign of compromise and reconciliation during three days (Sept 22 - 24) in this ancient northern town that saw:
the first substantive summit meeting Sept 22 between King Norodom Sihanouk, the CPP's Hun Sen and Chea Sim, and opposition leaders Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy;
immediate contradictions about what was actually achieved at the meeting, which was held in a reasonably poisonous atmosphere, despite what some politicians said publicly about it later;
and a purported assassination attempt on Hun Sen as the CPP motorcade led Ranariddh's own down Airport Road to the King's Palace, an hour or so before the new parliament was due to be sworn in by the shadow of the temple.

All this was being played out as opposition MPs claimed they were being held as in-country hostages.

"Well... what did you expect?" muttered one Western diplomat, shaking his head as he reviewed the bizarre sequence of events. "Did you really think it would be anything different?"

"Oh, I think it's a positive step," said another, when asked later.

Many opposition MPs had been banned by the government from traveling outside Cambodia, even though they had neither been charged nor questioned for crimes such as "inciting social disorder" during demonstrations earlier in the month, as was being claimed by the CPP.

"[The travel ban] does seem a bit, how would you say?... Heavy-handed?" said the "positive" diplomat. "There has certainly been talk about it," he offered.
The CPP needed the opposition to open parliament but still did not trust them to turn up, despite Funcinpec and SRP having previously withdrawn their threat to boycott.

The King eventually straightened it out for Hun Sen, sources say.

Funcinpec insiders told the Post in Siem Reap that they could not put the King in such a difficult, loss-of-face situation by refusing the Constitutional requirement for a Sept 24 parliament.

"And the King wanted to avoid violence at any cost," said Rainsy.

Sihanouk whispered to the opposition that they could continue their struggle with the added protection of having parliamentary immunity.

The opposition accepted this, even though some remain cynical of exactly what protection such parliamentary immunity offers them. One Funcinpec insider scoffed: "Oh sure. [Hun Sen] really cares about honoring such a thing?"

However, by attending parliament Funcinpec and the SRP appeared to have undermined their allegations that the formula used to apportion votes to seats was illegal, and that the vote was fraudulent.

The opposition knows too that it has virtually no support from the international community, as it is represented in Phnom Penh.

"The international community? Ha!" said one Funcinpec MP, wandering around the foyer of the Nokor Phnom hotel Sept 23. "Can you imagine any other country in the world where elected MPs are held hostage and taken to parliament under the barrel of a gun?"

"This is a comedy," added Rainsy the same day. "Nobody [in the international community] cares. They keep quiet."

The stage was set then, at Siem Reap's Royal Palace that first day, for a strained session between party heavyweights, chaired by the King. By most accounts, that's pretty much what occurred.

Ranariddh came in half-an-hour late, around 10:00am, from a direct flight from Bangkok (Rana-riddh was the only Funcinpec MP to have been allowed out of the country). Hun Sen, Chea Sim, Rainsy and the entourages of all three parties were already in the conference room with the King.

Sihanouk invited Ranariddh with whom he'd had a frosty meeting a week before to greet Hun Sen and sit nearby. Ranariddh apparently politely refused.

Chea Sim, after having first spoken a few words of thanks to the King, remained virtually silent throughout the three-hour meeting. Hun Sen was, by comparison, dominant, extremely aggressive and very organized.

"He had many folders of documents in front of him," said Rainsy. "When a topic came up he would find his corresponding folder to review and talk from."

Hun Sen spoke more than once, angrily, about possible coups against him and of how he would not hesitate to use military force in reply. He repeated these warnings to journalists later. Opposition MPs took this as veiled warning to everyone around the table, Chea Sim and Sihanouk included.

"Don't talk about a caretaker government," Hun Sen apparently said at one stage, on his feet and pointing his finger. "I would consider that a coup and I would be forced to respond by military force. Do not doubt me!" Insiders said the King visibly quailed.

Sources say he made similar comments to Rainsy about "don't even think about splitting Hun Sen and Chea Sim, [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng, [Chief of General Staff] Ke Kim Yan". Hun Sen again commented about the military consequences of such moves, sources said.

"He even had an arrest warrant for Rainsy!" exclaimed one Funcinpec official. "He showed it around the room," he said, extending the palm of his hand and waving it around, "like this...!"

Not quite, Rainsy said later. Among Hun Sen's stack of folders was, he said, "a document that could be used for the basis [for my] arrest... it included everybody by name within the SRP.

"It was all part of the stick-and-carrot approach... he then invited me to golf!"

Rainsy added that Hun Sen would stop at nothing to manipulate and threaten Funcinpec into coalition.

Hun Sen made it clear at the meeting and at later press conferences that the SRP no longer figured in his plans for a coalition. "[The SRP] is 180 degrees different [from the CPP]," Hun Sen said.

One source confirmed that Hun Sen told Ranariddh at the meeting that he already had more than the 18 votes needed for a two-thirds majority in the 122-seat parliament to form a government.

Ranariddh laughed, sources say. However, Post inquiries reveal that Hun Sen may be very near to achieving such a split within Funcinpec and the SRP but is still unsure of having exactly his watershed number, 82.

"He wants to buy some more time and at the same time challenge Funcinpec and the SRP not to depart from the plan he wants us to follow," said Rainsy.

Hun Sen repeated his preferred options: one, a coalition with Funcinpec; two, a constitutional change to allow him to govern by simple majority; and three, failing these, to continue governing with Ung Huot.

Rainsy said he replied that the CPP should continue governing with Huot, giving everyone time to have more discussions about forming a serious coalition.

"I even improved it for him! I said we would give him legitimacy for such a move, a temporary one. I think he was taken aback... he said he would have to discuss this with his lawyers.

"Even though he suggested this option, he doesn't want it," Rainsy said, adding that the King had thought it a very good idea when Rainsy discussed it with him beforehand. "The King even developed the idea, and said `don't make it temporary, give him, for example, a month!'"

The meeting also heard some discussion about Hun Sen's wish to join ASEAN. Again, sources said, Ranariddh demurred on giving his consent.

Rainsy talked quietly later about what many believe is a likely scenario should Funcinpec continue to resist a coalition with Hun Sen.

"If Funcinpec stay strong, there are two scenarios: either Rana-riddh remains in Phnom Penh or he leaves. If he leaves, Funcinpec will split, they'll be intimidated and at least 22 of their 43 [MPs] will join the CPP.

"If Ranariddh stays and if Funcinpec remain stubborn, if they insist on challenging the [election frauds] and refuse Hun Sen a coup, martial law, grenades, people arrested...

"What we're seeing now is the derailment of the democratic process... a mockery of the system. MPs are hostage... it's a complete perversion of democracy," he said.

The meeting decided that the Assembly would be convened, as would working groups to iron out opposition complaints and discuss the make-up of a coalition.

Techincal working groups between the main parties, the NEC and the Constitutional Council have already been tested and failed. And the parties couldn't even get together for mid-level talks as they said they'd do before the Sept 22 summit.

But Hun Sen, analysts said, could afford to promise plenty as long as he was assured parliament would begin. After that, there was no pressing timetables for him to worry about as he proceeded to threaten and buy his two-thirds of parliament, one opposition MP told the Post.

"We must discuss to solve the problems. Discuss, discuss, discuss. But I can wait for one month," Hun Sen said, "two months, three months, one year, two years, three years, four, five years... I can wait for Funcinpec to join us."

Hun Sen gave the nod during the meeting for Rainsy to ask for an amnesty for his imprisoned bodyguard Srun Vannak, provided Rainsy drop Vannak's case in the Appeals Court.

CPP's Minister for the Council of Ministers, Sok An, said later that it was clear the summit proved that Hun Sen had been accepted by everyone as the government's new prime minister.

Funcinpec replied it had agreed to nothing of the sort.

Funcinpec fired off a communique saying that amnesties of its exiled members, including Gen Nhek Bun Chhay, would be discussed, as would the release of detained demonstrators and the return of confiscated property.

Sok An mentioned nothing of this in the CPP's press conference.

Hun Sen said he was confident of striking together a coalition with Funcinpec "because they have no choice".

"Do not say [any] more `who is the prime minister?' because the prime minister is Hun Sen, Hun Sen, Hun Sen. This cannot change.

"If [Funcinpec] do not accept, they can chose a new president who can work with me... This is Hun Sen the winner, the party winner!"

The travel ban was lifted at 10pm Sept 24, after parliament had been sworn in.

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