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One side of the aisle

City dwellers attempt to make their way through police-guarded barricades on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay
City dwellers attempt to make their way through police-guarded barricades on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay. Many major streets and thoroughfares throughout the capital remained blocked as the first session of the new National Assembly came to a close. PHA LINA

One side of the aisle

With all 55 elected opposition lawmakers absent, the National Assembly opened yesterday morning with a single party stepping forward to represent the nation.

Despite the opposition boycott and scenes of violence that have erupted across the capital in the past week, what unfolded inside the assembly’s walls was a highly choreographed and sanitised production.

Sixty-eight ruling party lawmakers, along with dozens of high-ranking government officials and diplomats, attended the session presided over by King Norodom Sihamoni. In the afternoon, they were officially appointed during a ceremony at the palace.

The King, to whom many analysts and citizens had pinned their hopes for a political solution to the current impasse, separately issued a royal decree reappointing Prime Minister Hun Sen and asking him to form a new government – the vote for which will take place today, in spite of widespread condemnation.

Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and new parliamentarians greet King Norodom Sihamoni during the opening session of the parliament at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh.
Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and new parliamentarians greet King Norodom Sihamoni. SRENG MENG SRUN

Reading from a prepared speech, the King congratulated the elected representatives at the National Assembly and wished them luck.

“This inaugural session of the fifth legislature is a new chapter in the history of our legislative body, with the samdechs and excellencies – who are the noble members of the National Assembly and supreme representatives of all Cambodian people nationwide – expending and exhausting every physical and mental effort to serve the nation by putting the nation’s interest before any others,” he said.

No mention was made of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s boycott or post-election turmoil and only the smallest of nods given toward unity.

“The Cambodian nation must stand united and show the highest national solidarity on the basis of the implementation of the principles of democracy and rule of law,” he said.

King Sihamoni also touched upon legal and judicial reform – a ruling party promised cornerstone of the next mandate.

National Assembly president Heng Samrin then read off the names of each elected lawmaker, while Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Many – the youngest lawmaker – announced the agenda.

As Samrin intoned the names of dozens of opposition lawmakers, the 68 ruling party parliamentarians stared quietly ahead – empty seats yawning behind them.

The opposition as well as a number of legal experts have contended that it is unconstitutional for the National Assembly to open without 120 lawmakers present, while a quorum of 7/10ths of the lawmakers are obliged to vote in the new government. But the ruling party has insisted that they are free to press ahead with a simple majority.

Monks supporting the opposition party gather behind guarded police barricades on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh
Monks supporting the opposition party gather behind guarded police barricades on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh. PHA LINA

In Siem Reap, CNRP president Sam Rainsy hosted a Pchum Ben ceremony for the 63 lawmakers it maintains won the election and vowed to keep the boycott until the will of the voters is recognised.

By sitting without the opposition lawmakers, Rainsy said, the Cambodian People’s Party had sent the country back decades.

“We are still loyal to the people because we respect the constitution, which states that Cambodia has to implement multi-party politics. What was done this morning is returning Cambodia to the communist regime,” he told supporters.

When the National Assembly meets again today, lawmakers will conduct the first order of business – the formation of a new government. Though analysts have cautioned that any government voted into power with only a single party present could undermine the legitimacy of the government, the CPP has brushed aside such claims.

Yesterday, Minister of Information and CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said that he had little doubt the opposition would eventually come around.

“It is not the first time that the opposition party has not attended the opening of the National Assembly, and the CNRP has no good intention to see the formation of parliament,” he told the Post.

Motorists are blocked by razor-wire barricades and policemen in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
Motorists are blocked by razor-wire barricades and policemen in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district. HONG MENEA

“We were not disappointed [by the boycott], because they are the elected parliamentarians. They usually don’t enter into the front door of the National Assembly, but they always enter from the back door,” he said, referring to the 2008 elections, when three boycotting Human Rights Party lawmakers were sworn in nearly a month after parliament opened.

Koul Panha, director of election watchdog Comfrel, said the ruling party would face increasing backlash from voters and foreign nations should they fail to bring the CNRP back to the negotiating table.

“I think the situation has changed. It is not like before. The ruling party, the government should be careful to change with the new situation. Otherwise, the people will act. And they can’t use violence against them. If they do, they will increase their anger,” he said. “The ruling party should try more negotiations.”

Failed negotiations urged by the King coupled with his willingness to go ahead and launch the opening session – in spite of hundreds of thousands of petitions submitted to the Royal Palace asking for a delay – could add to the unrest.

“The opposition voters are not happy with state institutions on many levels . . . so when the conflict moves to the King, they expect a lot from the King,” Panha said. “But now that the King is not trying to play that role, that’s something some voters may be frustrated [by]. I don’t know how much it will effect [the situation].”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG AND MAY TITTHARA

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