Twenty-three cars carrying more than two dozen opposition lawmakers yesterday negotiated their way past police road blocks and delivered a mass petition to the Royal Palace, calling on King Norodom Sihamoni to intervene and put an end to the Kingdom’s current political crisis.
Setting off just hours after ruling party lawmakers voted to allow police to arrest the opposition’s acting president, Kem Sokha, the procession marked the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s first major public pushback against what’s been widely labelled a political crackdown.
In the morning’s session, the Cambodian People’s Party’s 68 lawmakers voted to circumvent Sokha’s parliamentary immunity by declaring his recent failure to appear for court questioning a “flagrant” offence, after which Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin confirmed police would seek the politician’s arrest.
“Now, Mr Kem Sokha will be placed under arrest, as he has committed a real offence,” Malin said. “But we have not arrested him yet.”
With the CNRP threatening a mass demonstration if Sokha is taken into custody, tensions yesterday remained high, with one opposition lawmaker saying they considered the arrest of their acting president – who remains holed up at party headquarters – a “red line”.
However, three opposition lawmakers yesterday spoke of overtures made by the CPP to engage in negotiations, opening a potential path to defuse the heated climate.
But a compromise may be difficult, they said, given the terms set by the CPP. According to the men, the ruling party wants the opposition to fill the first vice president position at the National Assembly, from which Sokha was ousted by the CPP last year.
They also want the CNRP to name a parliamentary minority group leader, a role held by Sokha and previously held by party president Sam Rainsy before he went into self-imposed exile abroad to avoid arrest last year.
In effect, the CPP wants the party to sideline its own leaders, the parliamentarians acknowledged, with senior lawmaker Pol Ham suggested by the ruling party as an apt replacement for at least one of the leadership roles because he is seen as “less rough”.
“This is the purpose of the CPP; they really want to kick both presidents out and have a new person who they think for them is easy,” one lawmaker, who declined to be named, said.
“This is our party . . . this is not acceptable to us,” said another lawmaker, who also declined to be named.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann yesterday said the terms were “only rumours”. Pol Ham, meanwhile, declined to comment, only to say that “Kem Sokha is still acting president of the CNRP and acting minority leader”.
However, Long Botta, lawmaker for Battambang, said the party had indeed been approached with such terms, which he called unacceptable.
Botta instead suggested that the CNRP wanted to push for the “whole thing” at the negotiating table. “[We want] Sam Rainsy to rejoin us, Kem Sokha put back as vice chairman of the National Assembly and for them to free all the activists that are in jail,” Botta said.
Reached yesterday evening, CPP spokesman Sous Yara said the “door was open” for talks as part of the so-called “culture of dialogue”, but said no official terms had been set.He added that no formal request to sit down had been sent by the CNRP.
Prior to the departure of the opposition’s motorcade yesterday, Sovann said the party wanted to show “all stakeholders” that Cambodia’s democracy was under threat.
Flanked by scores of motorbikes, the lawmakers’ cars left CNRP headquarters just after 2:30pm, after parliamentarians, led by Ho Vann, negotiated with deputy traffic police chief Chat Hak to allow 23 of about 40 waiting cars to pass through barricades manned by shield-carrying riot police.
Cheered on at times by bystanders assembled along the route, the procession crawled down National Road 2 and onto Norodom Boulevard before being directed right onto Sothearos Boulevard.
The cars – all bearing National Assembly plates – were then shunted right near the Russian Embassy by a contingent of police onto National Assembly Street, which led them towards a group of pro-CPP supporters on Sisowath Quay near the Cambodiana Hotel. The group shouted aggressively, though no clashes appeared to take place.
At about 4pm, the group arrived at the Royal Palace, where several lawmakers oversaw the handing over of 18 dossiers containing 173,144 thumbprints collected from across Cambodia in recent weeks to palace official Kol Bunly.
The petition calls for the King to step in and stop what’s widely seen as the CPP using an alleged affair by Sokha as a pretext for flimsy legal cases to neutralise its opponents via its control of the judiciary.
“We still hope,” CNRP lawmaker Yem Ponhearith said after delivering the bundle.
“Because His Majesty is the King of the Kingdom of Cambodia, he guarantees independence, guarantees territorial integrity and guarantees [rights] of every kind, so we hope the King will offer justice for his children.”
Although the King nominally chairs the judiciary’s peak body, he wields little actual power and has never before intervened in the country’s politics.
Four current and one former staff member of rights group Adhoc along with a commune chief have been jailed in connection with Sokha’s alleged affair, which has been aggressively investigated by anti-corruption authorities and anti-terror police since it first emerged via covertly recorded phone conversations leaked to social media in February.
More broadly, fellow rights group Licadho currently classifies 29 people as “political prisoners”, though the government rejects this characterisation.
Sokha was last week provisionally charged for ignoring a second court summons to answer questions about whether he and two fellow CNRP lawmakers procured a prostitute, an allegation stemming from a liaison in Thailand with his purported mistress, Khom Chandaraty.
Last Thursday, armed police surrounded the party’s headquarters in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the opposition leader. They also stopped his car, though he was not inside.
Following the attempted arrests, Phnom Penh Municipal Court head prosecutor Yet Chakrya requested the parliament’s consent for further action.
Speaking before his CPP colleagues yesterday morning, National Assembly President Heng Samrin cited the court’s request before asking whether any lawmakers present wished to vote to suspend the case, a question that was met with silence.
The ruling party parliamentarians then raised their hands unanimously to approve the case, which holds that by missing the hearing, Sokha had committed a “flagrant” offence under Cambodian law, which nullifies his parliamentary immunity.
“I would like to declare that the National Assembly has voted to let the competent authorities continue to take action according to procedures for His Excellency Kem Sokha’s case,” Samrin said.
At a press conference at CNRP headquarters, opposition lawmaker Son Chhay slammed the vote as unacceptable, saying it breached the constitution’s Article 80, which stipulates that it takes a two-thirds majority to approve legal action against a lawmaker.
“We have already seen there is no separation of powers,” Chhay said. “The executive power controls the power of both the courts and National Assembly.”
In a statement released yesterday evening, the European Union Delegation to Cambodia and European ambassadors expressed “deep regret” over the “dangerous political escalation” in recent days.
The EU – which has made its €10 million ($11 million) support package for elections conditional on a good political atmosphere – called for “a halt to the judicial harassment of the acting leader of the opposition and representatives of civil society organisations”.
“We urge the Cambodian authorities to resume as soon as possible a peaceful and constructive dialogue with the opposition, which we see as a prerequisite for legitimate forthcoming elections.”