Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday threatened to scrap the title of parliamentary minority leader if the opposition pushes for the release of prisoners in upcoming talks with their ruling party counterparts.
The position, ostensibly equal in rank to prime minister, is held by Cambodia National Rescue Party acting president Kem Sokha, who assumed the title from exiled party president Sam Rainsy in December after King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon clearing his five-month sentence for not appearing in his “prostitution” case.
After the pardon, Sokha pledged to lobby for the release of four workers from rights group Adhoc and an election official imprisoned in a bribery case related to his own.
With expectations the group would be released before the end of last year dashed, attention has now turned to a planned meeting between Sokha and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who is “majority leader” for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
However, talking points proposed for the sit down did not mention the inmates, and Hun Sen wants it to stay that way.
Speaking yesterday from Switzerland, where he is attending the Davos World Economic Forum, the premier warned he would ask CPP lawmakers to amend the parliament’s internal regulations to ditch the title if the opposition “created difficulties” by pushing the prisoners onto the agenda.
He said using the minority leadership position to negotiate for the group’s release was an “abuse” of the country’s courts.
If it created such difficulties, “we must amend the new Article 48”, Hun Sen told pro-government outlet Fresh News, referring to the provision in the parliament’s internal regulations that refer to the position.
“Because the new article was my idea, I propose to amend it through members of parliament of the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said.
Reached yesterday, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann declined to comment on the premier’s remarks.
He said, based on the party’s correspondence with Sar Kheng, that there was “no problem” with the talks, though a date still had not been set.
“We do not refer about how to release [the prisoners], but we talk about political problems,” Sovann said of the meeting’s agenda.
If Hun Sen does move to scrap Sokha’s position of minority leader, it wouldn’t be the first time the CPP has stripped the CNRP deputy of a title, having ousted him as National Assembly first vice president in 2015 amid claims he had too harshly criticised the ruling party.
Observers, in fact, saw Hun Sen’s public endorsement of Sokha as the new minority leader as a way to further marginalise Rainsy, who initially claimed the title was still his.
Commenting on the recent threat, political analyst Ou Virak said such titles were purely “ceremonial” anyway, as were the meetings between leaders.
“At the end of the day, most of these deals are not done through meetings but through other forms of communication,” Virak said.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the agenda of these so-called meetings.”