Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on a U.N. special envoy to press the country’s opposition to rejoin parliament and negotiate an end to the country’s political stalemate since disputed July elections, an official said Wednesday.
Hun Sen met with U.N. special envoy for human rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi for three hours on Wednesday, discussing topics ranging from rights issues to political reform, according to the Cambodian government human rights committee chairman Om Yientieng.
The prime minister stressed to Subedi, who arrived Sunday for a six-day fact-finding mission, that the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) legislators should lift a boycott of the National Assembly, or parliament, and end their dispute with their counterparts in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) by working on issues of reform together, he said after the talks.
“Samdech [honorific] Hun Sen has conveyed his message to Surya Subedi, asking him to inform the CNRP to join the National Assembly to work on deep reforms which would benefit the opposition party,” said Om Yientieng, who is also president of Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit.
The CNRP boycotted parliament and has held frequent nonviolent mass protests calling on Hun Sen to quit and to hold new elections following last year’s July 28 disputed polls, which it maintains the CPP stole through voting fraud and other irregularities.
“Why won’t the CNRP take a chance to reach their goals?” Om Yientieng asked, adding that with 55 elected lawmakers—according to official count—the opposition has enough seats to summon any government official before the legislature.
“As an opposition party they don’t have to be running the government and they can still accomplish a lot,” he said.
“Why won’t they come to the National Assembly?”
Hun Sen has dismissed opposition calls for his resignation and for him to call new elections, saying he was elected constitutionally. He has also rejected calls for an independent probe into the elections.
Talks between the two parties are reportedly under way, but it remains unclear how likely they are to end in an agreement after repeated meetings held since the elections have failed to yield any progress.
Om Yientieng said that in addition to urging Subedi to intervene in the political stalemate, Hun Sen also discussed the general situation of human rights in Cambodia and the mandate of the envoy, who is due to present an annual report on his findings to the United Nations in July.
Hun Sen told Subedi that the government would take responsibility for implementing reforms proposed by the U.N., including those to streamline key state institutions and the judiciary.
According to Om Yientieng, Subedi asked about the government’s plans to create a national human rights committee and expressed his concerns over a crackdown by authorities earlier this month on striking factory workers which left five dead and more than 40 wounded.
Twenty-three activists and others have also been thrown in jail following the deadly crackdown.
Subedi pledged to make himself available to provide advice for the prime minister on any issues regarding human rights or the political deadlock.
‘Bridging the gap’
In a video interview by the Phnom Penh Post, Subedi acknowledged that Hun Sen had pushed for the National Assembly as the arena in which to end the stalemate between the CNRP and CPP, but suggested negotiations between the two parties were already under way.
“The prime minister’s position was that parliament was the proper venue to resolve many of these issues,” he said. “There should be a proper debate in parliament, and the opposition party should join parliament.”
“But I understand there have been negotiations going on at different levels with the help of different intermediaries,” he added, without providing details.
Subedi said that he had received “encouraging” signs during his meeting with Hun Sen that the prime minister “is serious about comprehensive reform … [which] will go a long way to satisfy some of the concerns I have received from the opposition party and other stakeholders in Cambodian society.”
He said that while the government had been slow to act on his former recommendations, Hun Sen’s assurances Wednesday that electoral, judicial, parliamentary, and land reforms will get under way before Subedi’s next visit in either May or June were “more concrete” this time around.
Subedi lamented the recent crackdown on workers striking for increased wages and better factory conditions, as well as a recent government move to remove opposition protesters from their base in the capital, and called on the international community to play a role in promoting democratic freedoms in Cambodia.
“The international community has invested heavily in Cambodia over the past 20 years, including the United Nations, and the series of events that have taken place over the past two weeks or so has made everybody sad, including myself,” he said.
“We thought democracy was getting mature and people were getting used to the idea of exercising their rights in a peaceful manner. This setback has upset many people, and the international community has a role to play in bridging the gap between the opposition party and the ruling party.”
According to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, Subedi will hold a press conference on Thursday to brief reporters on his findings and the issues he raised during this week’s visit.
Negotiations under way?
The meeting between Hun Sen and Subedi follows reports that CNRP President Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, had written a letter to Hun Sen via a mediator seeking a “compromise for national reconciliation” and offering a list of demands that could result in their party’s return to parliament.
Kem Sokha denied that the CNRP had sent any letters to the CPP, adding that his party maintained “the same stance as before in terms of talks.”
He said that before any talks can be held, the government must release the 23 people who are being detained in connection with worker protests and investigate the deadly shooting incident during the strike earlier this month.
The government must also restore Cambodia’s human rights situation “back to normal” and allow the people to hold protests, he said.
The Phnom Penh Post reported Tuesday that secret negotiations between the CPP and the CNRP had been ongoing since Jan. 5 and “are close to reaching a solution,” citing political analyst Kem Ley and Heang Rithy, president of the rights group Cambodian National Research Organization.
The two analysts said they had been briefed in depth by the senior government official acting as a go-between in the negotiations, and that according to Kem Ley, Hun Sen had agreed to 80 percent of the opposition’s key demands.
According to the sources, the CNRP letter demanded fresh elections in 2015 or 2016, the chairmanship of some parliamentary commissions, the right to run a television station to counter ruling party influence ahead of elections and for the CPP to agree to look at electoral reforms.
It also asked for the deputy presidency of the National Assembly, instead of its previous demand for the presidency, in exchange for an end to its boycott of parliament.
Officials from both parties appeared to downplay any suggestion of ongoing negotiations.
On Wednesday, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith told RFA’s Khmer Service that the CNRP had set several “preconditions” before it would renew talks and that if these were deemed acceptable, the CPP would return to the table, though he refused to elaborate on what the conditions were.
“They have set a few conditions and we are considering some of those conditions,” he said.
“I can’t say because I don’t want to give the idea that one party is asking the other party. We must keep this confidential.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.