King Norodom Sihamoni used the opening of parliament on Wednesday morning to call for “strong national solidarity based on the spirit of national unity” as he inaugurated the sixth mandate of the National Assembly in a ceremony that was devoid of representatives from major Western embassies.
Nine of the 31 missions invited did not send their ambassadors, with Australia saying on Tuesday it would not be represented due to the “flawed election process” that led to a one-party National Assembly – controlled by prime minister-designate Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – for the first time in Cambodia’s modern history.
The US and EU embassies said their ambassadors were “unable to attend” the event.
France, the UK, Germany, Canada, Sweden and Bulgaria did not give reasons for their non-attendance, according to National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long.
However, observers considered it a “boycott” after the Western countries that were absent, notably the EU, the US and their allies, had openly criticised the July 29 elections as neither free nor fair, with the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party sidelined after its Supreme Court dissolution and its former president Kem Sokha in prison on treason charges.
Peng Long told reporters after the ceremony that he regretted the absence of the Western ambassadors. He said negative assessments of Cambodia’s current political situation were “incorrect”.
“We very much regret the [absence of the nine ambassadors] because Cambodia wishes to have a good relationship with all nations. Cambodia has been trying to follow and develop democracy since 1993, but as we know, our efforts [have faced] challenges.
“There were many obstacles in our path, but we have been successful in developing democracy over five major elections. The elections symbolise the democracy.
“We regret that external assessments [based on] the absence [from the 2018 national elections] of an opposition party – which initiated treason – was the reason they did not support the election. Their assessment is incorrect,” he said.
On the opening of parliament, the King read a message saying that the National Assembly’s opening session was made “in accordance with the Constitution” after the attendant lawmakers were elected in the July 29 elections.
“Taking this terrific opportunity, it is my great pleasure to extend my congratulations to the first session of the National Assembly of the 6th Legislature, and I also convey my warmest congratulations to all members of the National Assembly, who were elected by the will and trust of the people in the national elections,” said the King.
He said that since the first mandate of the National Assembly 25 years ago, Cambodia has transferred from a country riven with division to one characterised by peace, stability, democracy and development.
“It is my firm belief that the Royal Government in the new mandate will be given greater attention by the National Assembly, and will fulfil its duty consistent with its political platform in enhancing economic growth and elevating the livelihoods of the people, … [and] accelerating socio-economic development, all the while promoting morality for the maintenance of our social harmony.
“To accomplish this supreme duty, our nation must stand united and show strong solidarity based on the spirit of national unity, including strict adherence to the four immeasurables in Buddhism [the brahmaviharas]: loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.”
After the King’s comments, senior parliamentarian and National Assembly president-designate Heng Samrin led the first session of the National Assembly as it approved the validity of each member and its internal regulations with a unanimous 125 votes.
In the afternoon, all 125 CPP members of parliament attended the Royal Palace to swear an oath in front of the King before taking office.
On Thursday, the National Assembly will hold a meeting to elect its president and vice-president and give its approval to validate the government.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said by boycotting the opening of the National Assembly, the ambassadors from North America and Europe had sent a clear signal to prime minister Hun Sen that he had failed in his efforts to gain legitimacy for his government from the international community.
“Most of the governments that showed up [on Wednesday] don’t really care much about the election because they are not democratic themselves or they have such an absolute view of national sovereignty that they would never dare speak out about anything.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen will maintain that he’s happy with the turnout, but don’t let his reaction fool you because he’s lost a lot of face today,” he told The Post.