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Parties meet amid tension

Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng (left) and CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha shake hands prior to a Thursday meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng (left) and CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha shake hands prior to a Thursday meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Parties meet amid tension

Leaders from the CPP and CNRP yesterday met face-to-face for the first time since the eruption of Cambodia’s ongoing political crisis, agreeing on a four-point joint statement emphasising the so-called culture of dialogue.

After weeks of strained tensions amid what has been labelled a state-sanctioned “crackdown” on the opposition party, Interior Minister and Cambodian People’s Party senior official Sar Kheng and Cambodia National Rescue Party acting president Kem Sokha met for about 40 minutes at the National Assembly.

Prior to the closed-door sit-down, Kheng, also a deputy prime minister, told journalists “a range of topics” would be discussed.

However, at a press conference afterwards, CPP spokesman Sak Setha said CNRP president Sam Rainsy – who remains in self-imposed exile to avoid prison on recently resurrected defamation and incitement charges – was not on the agenda, nor was the ruling party’s decision to remove Sokha as the parliament’s first vice president.

Offering familiar lines about the “culture of dialogue”, a frequently quoted yet largely ignored understanding between the parties to avoid combative rhetoric and politics, Setha said the two sides had agreed to meet once or twice a month to resolve “remaining problems”.

“We will continue to examine the ability of the culture of dialogue in order to strengthen the stability of peace and political stability and the sustainability of democracy in our country,” said Setha.

According to the joint statement, the parties will establish a working group to examine the controversial trade union law, create a committee to assess the so-called culture of dialogue; focus on efforts to improve the parliament’s performance; and address “remaining issues”.

“The problem occurred because of a lack of confidence in each other, therefore from now on we have to build the confidence in each other with principles and a code of ethics to avoid misunderstandings,” CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told reporters.

Speaking later by phone, Sovann said the CNRP had not yet ended its boycott of parliamentary sessions, but was determined to work with the CPP to avoid violence and “normalise the situation”, including a decision for lawmakers to resume their work on parliamentary committees.

After reaching a high watermark in July when Prime Minister Hun Sen and Rainsy’s families dined together to celebrate the culture of dialogue, relations between the parties have progressively soured this year.

Over the prevailing months, 14 CNRP activists and opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour were jailed in cases widely slammed as politically motivated.

On October 26, two opposition lawmakers were gang-bashed outside parliament by protesters from a pro-government rally calling for Sokha to be ousted as the assembly’s first vice president.

Three days later, Sokha, whose house was also targeted by protesters, was sacked from the position.

Since November 13, Rainsy has been hit with three legal cases, including a long-dormant two-year prison sentence handed down in 2011 for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong by alleging he collaborated with leaders at a Khmer Rouge prison camp in the 1970s.

Stripped of his lawmaker status and parliamentary immunity by the CPP-controlled permanent committee on November 16, he has opted for self-imposed exile in Europe, having been abroad when an initial arrest warrant was issued.

Independent political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak yesterday said Sokha and Sar Kheng likely discussed Rainsy’s situation and other sensitive topics but opted to steer clear of airing specifics.

“When trust is not completely there, releasing things publicly could invite misinterpretation, and once it goes to the Facebook supporters from both sides, they interpret this and that and it gets spoiled again,” Sopheak said. “They would want to release common ground, good news, positive news, instead of opening up windows for misinterpretation.

“I see it as a positive sign from both sides to go further . . . they prefer to build a process that they can continue step-by-step.”

Political commentator Chea Vannath said leaders now had to live up to their own purported standards.

“The culture of dialogue is not based on what is written but the personalities of the top leaders themselves; it doesn’t matter how good the meeting about the culture of dialogue is, if it’s not applied, then there’s nothing,” Vannath said.

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