An adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested initiating negotiations between the government and the now-dissolved opposition in a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday, an official said, a suggestion welcomed by former opposition members but rejected by a government spokesman on Sunday.
Japan has remained one of Cambodia’s few democratic allies since the November dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the nation’s only viable opposition – which prompted some countries to impose visa restrictions, and the US and EU to pull funding for the National Election Committee, which Japan has not.
Following the meeting on Friday, Sry Thamrong, an adviser to Hun Sen, said that Japanese emissary Kentaro Sonoura had suggested, as a friend, the ruling party open up to negotiations with the former CNRP.
“If we make it short, it was about the possibility of negotiation or dialogue between the prime minister and those who were banned from political rights,” he said, referring to the 118 senior CNRP members suspended from participating in politics for five years.
The so-called culture of dialogue between the opposition and ruling party began in 2014 when Hun Sen and former opposition leader Sam Rainsy reached an agreement to end the opposition’s nearly yearlong boycott of parliament following the disputed 2013 national election.
The dialogue quickly soured, however, with the ruling party accusing the opposition of being too critical. In late 2015, Rainsy was forced into self-imposed exile by the resurrection of an old legal case, and the following year, his successor, Kem Sokha, was forced into de facto house arrest over a criminal case involving a purported mistress and his failure to appear for a court summons.
He was later pardoned, and both parties continued to make occasional references to the culture of dialogue until early 2017, but interactions between the two parties were held to a minimum.
Since then, however, relations have only gotten worse, with Sokha jailed last September over accusations of “treason”, the party dissolved, its members banned from politics and some compelled to flee the country for fear of arrest and intimidation. Rainsy, who remains in self-imposed exile, was also recently slapped with a court complaint accusing him of “treason”.
At the end of December last year, the premier had pledged to “stop talking” about the CNRP, but has since proven unable or unwilling to, repeatedly accusing them of threatening the country’s “peace and stability”.
Mu Sochua, a former deputy president of the CNRP, lauded the suggestion of negotiations in a message on Sunday.
“CNRP unequivocally welcomes Japan’s role in the restart of the culture of dialogue,” she said. “We ask that key signatories join Japan to witness and to serve as guarantor to the dialogue.”
Rainsy, who was forced to leave the CNRP by controversial legal amendments in March last year, agreed. “I continue to believe in the culture of dialogue when it is sincerely implemented, meaning without threat or bullying,” he said in an email.
But Phay Siphan, Council of Ministers spokesperson, rejected the suggestion and argued that the CNRP had been dissolved by a Supreme Court ruling, making dialogue impossible.
“A culture of dialogue can’t overrule the rule of law,” he said.
Siphan added that given the CNRP’s longstanding criticism of the so-called “culture of impunity” engendered by Cambodia’s oft-maligned courts, they of all people should heed a Supreme Court ruling.
He also said Rainsy had “abused” the previous culture of dialogue by continuously raising new issues for the parties to address, an allegation Rainsy rejected.
“I deplore the fact that Hun Sen takes everything personally,” he said in an email. “Maybe he does it as a pretext to kill a starting dialogue that could lead to a compromise opening the way for a democratic change. To show statesmanship we have to put aside our personal feelings and concentrate on the national interest.”
Political analyst Ou Virak also approved the suggestion.
“I welcome the call and I don’t see why not,” he said in a message.
“One of the major strengths of the prime minister is to always strike the right balance between control and keeping some sort of international and domestic legitimacy. I am sure he would understand that a certain compromise that would bring about legitimacy to the upcoming election would contribute to stability.”
The Japanese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.