Nurturing the culture of dialogue

Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy
Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy shake hands on July 22nd last year, ending a year long stalemate between the two parties. Heng Chivoan

Nurturing the culture of dialogue

The residents of Prek Preah Sdech in the city of Battambang have lived for years in uncertainty of forced eviction as the land they have lived on is state land, destined for a public park. Confusion and fear reign in this small community and tension rose high last week between authorities and the residents.

Members of Parliament and elected local councilors from the Cambodia National Rescue Party held a public forum to listen to and to collect the people’s complaints. In no more than 30 minutes after we left the community, we received an invitation to meet the city governor. On behalf of the people, we raised their concerns, we defended their rights.

The meeting went on for more than two full hours. Both sides took their own positions but arguments were made in an atmosphere of mutual respect; of mutual willingness to find solutions for the residents of Prek Preah Sdech. This is unprecedented.

Interactions between the two political parties come under different forms and are happening daily. Interactions within Parliamentary commissions are the most active and visible signs that Majority and Minority MPs are functioning in the spirit of the new culture of dialogue and with the principles of representative democracy. Citizens with complaints are received by their elected representatives.

Commission members from both parties travel to the provinces together to conduct on site investigations. Complaints from the citizens range from land conflicts to sand dredging to debts and migration. Meetings between Minority MPs and governors are happening at local level. Ministers accept the need to break the old practice of no show to a new rule of coming prepared to answer questions at the parliamentary commissions chaired by the Minority.

CNRP has launched a new program of Meet Your MP, or a dialogue with our constituents at each provincial office reserved for MPs or at community level. The culture of dialogue is paving the way for Minority MPs to meet more freely and more openly our constituents, who in turn are more willing to meet a Minority MP. Samlot district in North West Battambang has been until now the most challenging place to conduct public hearings. Cut off for years, the people of Samlot live in fear. Last week Meet Your MP was conducted under a tree. Even there, the people have heard of the culture of dialogue. It was the first time I was able to openly perform my role and duty as their elected representative without feeling the pressure of being followed and closely watched.

In a culture where mistrust and fear divide us, the nascent culture of dialogue alleviates political tensions, it encourages people at different ends of the conflict to find a middle way. It reminds opponents to stick to national interests. It leads to various forms of interactions at different levels. The dialogue does not apply only to the top level but these top level leaders must serve as good role models and are held most accountable should they fail to fulfill their roles in this new culture.

The 22 July Agreements between the two political parties representing the people at the National Assembly should be seen beyond a political deal but as a breakthrough for inclusive democracy. This new road to a culture of dialogue will be long and bumpy. It may come to a dead end or to a crossroad at some point but it all depends on how hard the concerned parties try and hold themselves accountable to the people.

Exchanges of harsh words between leaders were made in public just a few weeks ago. The political temperature shot up quickly but each side also quickly shifted gears to get back to the dialogue track. There is no challenge harder to overcome than the challenge of building a culture of dialogue. It does not take one side to sit at the table but all those who want to put an end to violence have the right to a seat or to be represented at the table.

There is no time frame when building a culture of dialogue but there must be a shared vision and a common agenda to end the years of mistrust and antagonism.

Mu Sochua is a member of parliament for the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

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