Prime Minister Hun Sen offered equal parts carrot and stick in a speech aimed at the opposition yesterday, affirming the ruling party’s willingness to concede key opposition demands while simultaneously threatening prosecution and forceful crackdowns if demonstrations start anew.
Speaking to disabled soldiers in Kampot province, Hun Sen said the ruling party would acquiesce to the opposition’s demand for its own television licence, as long as it applied through a private company. Hun Sen also said he would give the National Election Committee constitutional status – another major sticking point for the opposition and observers.
However, the premier tempered the concessions with sharply worded threats to both Cambodia National Rescue Party leadership and those who would join any grassroots-level demonstrations, saying to those who may plan to come out, “be careful of death”.
On the subject of an opposition TV licence, Hun Sen said he had first made the offer to the CNRP on April 9 in a phone call with party president Sam Rainsy.
“I also asked [Information Minister] Khieu Kanharith to divide one channel from the frequency of the national television [TVK] for them to set up” a station, the premier said, blaming the party leadership’s reluctance to file the paperwork on their stubbornness at the negotiating table.
The prime minister went on to say that he would also agree to adding a constitutional mandate for the NEC to Chapter 15 of the constitution, even though he indicated that he found the idea somewhat outlandish.
“The National Election Committee as a constitutional institution, I have never heard of such a thing,” Hun Sen said before signalling he had accepted the request. “[We] will amend the constitution to add one more chapter to put the [NEC] into … the constitution.”
Hun Sen also reaffirmed the ruling party’s concession to hold the 2018 election in February, several months in advance – an early election being a key opposition demand – but took pains to remind listeners that there was still an iron fist inside the velvet glove.
“I have already let you be free for a while, and if you want to test me, I need only 48 hours” to crack down, he said, going on to warn the opposition against being “overbearing” in their demands of constitutional change.
Hun Sen also insinuated that documents accusing CNRP leaders of incitement were ready and waiting, should he deem it necessary to file them.
“Incitement documents are already drafted,” he said. “You cannot escape, and you have no immunity – no need to remove your [parliamentary] immunity in the National Assembly, just [to file] an arrest warrant.”
He went on to urge the opposition to join the National Assembly and get down to the work of drafting their proposed reforms, but concluded with another thinly veiled threat.
“It is your right as to whether you recognise [the government] or not, [but] if you are against the law, you will be handcuffed – and don’t try to hide in an embassy,” the prime minister went on to say.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said that an opposition television station would be a big step forward in a country with a ruling party-dominated broadcast media.
“Given the recent media blackout on the return of the leader of the opposition party [Sam Rainsy] and of the electoral campaign by the state-run TV and private TV that is aligned with the ruling party, this is a good opportunity for the opposition party to represent their voice,” he said.
However, CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha yesterday dismissed Hun Sen’s offer of a TV licence as “bait”, and said the party had more important things to worry about.
“It is not important, this [offer] about the television licence. What is important, is the electoral reform,” he said. “We have not thought of this yet – we are thinking of [a new] election first.”
Sokha reacted more favourably to the suggestion to join the National Assembly to draft the NEC constitutional amendment, but said the opposition couldn’t end its boycott without a clear, detailed agreement in place.
“If the [ruling] Cambodian People’s Party really has the intention to amend the constitution, it must allow the negotiating groups to meet and talk together. [We] must have clear political agreement and witnesses,” he said.
Fellow opposition lawmaker-elect Son Chhay also responded coolly to Hun Sen’s concessions, saying they had been on the table for months, and hardly represented a leap forward.
“The offer has already been around for quite some time,” he said. “Now we need to clarify what it means by ‘constitutional NEC’ … to write down the points that will make the NEC truly independent – independent budget, independent decisions, independence in the way people will be recruited.… And the National Assembly needs to be reformed too, because it has been a rubber stamp for too long.”
“The offer of a [new] election in February was not acceptable, that’s why we got stuck” in stalled negotiations in April, he added.