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Hang Puthea deal sealed: PM

Hang Puthea, director of Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia
Hang Puthea, director of Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia, talks to the Post yesterday about the ninth National Election Committee seat. Hong Menea

Hang Puthea deal sealed: PM

Prime Minister Hun Sen drew a line in the sand yesterday on the choice of Hang Puthea, head of election-monitoring group Nicfec, as the “neutral” member of the reformed National Election Committee (NEC), while rifts seemed to remain among the opposition over the selection.

In a speech delivered during a road inauguration ceremony in Stung Treng province, the premier revealed that Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy had asked for other candidates to be considered, just hours after espousing Puthea’s suitability for the role.

The opposition leader, he added, had reasoned that Puthea has diabetes and would need to go for treatment in Vietnam.

“The CPP disagrees [with calls] to take the disease as a problem to change Mr Hang Puthea’s candidature according to His Excellency’s proposal,” Hun Sen said.

Addressing Rainsy directly, he warned that the Cambodian People’s Party would not budge on its selection now that Rainsy had agreed to it.

“I would like to offer two choices to your excellency. The first is to continue to support Mr Hang Puthea’s candidature according to our agreement on March 29, and the second is [it is] not necessary to vote to select a new NEC on April 13, because both parties disagreed on the choice of the ninth candidate,” he said.

Under the recently negotiated NEC law, if a new NEC cannot be formed due to disagreements over members, the existing and much-maligned NEC will continue to function.

“I do not have a choice [to offer] besides this, [so] I hope that your excellency will consider this responsibly and respect the agreement between both of us,” he added, before going on to question Rainsy’s seeming change of heart.

“He agreed with me in Paris, so why when he arrived in Phnom Penh does he not agree? Does [the CNRP] have internal problems?”

The premier also took aim at the former front-runner, Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek, who turned down the role this week.

“If we are patriots, can we give up foreign citizenships to come to serve the nation, or not? Or let the nation serve only you?” he asked, referring to the NEC’s single-nationality restriction, to which Kek, who holds Canadian, French and Cambodian passports, had refused to cede.

Contacted after yesterday’s speech, Rainsy maintained that his party was resolute on the selection of Puthea, making Hun Sen’s warnings “irrelevant”.

“We heard some rumours that he [Puthea] might have some health problems, but we have checked those rumours and everything has been cleared,” he explained. “Everything is settled now”.

After it was revealed on Tuesday that Puthea had been selected as the crucial ninth member of the NEC, a CNRP official told the Post that Rainsy had “made the decision alone”.

Rainsy confirmed yesterday that he had agreed in principle to Puthea before consulting the rest of the party.

“I was in Paris, so it was hard to get in touch with everybody,” he explained, adding that upon his return to Phnom Penh this week, he discussed it with other CNRP members in detail before reaching a formal agreement.

He said that while some party members were disappointed that Kek had turned down the role, they were supportive of Puthea’s selection.

“The second best is less good than the best … but we are still happy,” he said.

But, contrary to Rainsy’s assurances, CNRP spokesman Yem Ponharith said yesterday evening that the party was still undecided on who should take the role and wanted to review all the candidates before making a final decision.

“We understand that the agreement on July 22 is to reform elections and resolve the political deadlock, so we hope that there will be a resolution,” he added.

In an interview in Phnom Penh yesterday, Puthea said he had not yet received official letters from the two parties about his selection but had already decided to accept the role, vowing to “share knowledge, share experience, and discuss and focus on free and fair elections” with the rest of the NEC.

“I will not support these two parties, but support the principle of the election,” he said, before dismissing rumours of ill health.

“If they want to change me out, they should use a [reason] which is different from this,” he said, adding that he was confused as to why the CNRP were making such claims.

“I have a lot of contact with CNRP officials but the accusers are officials of the CNRP. It should be that the CPP” is making the accusations.

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