Leaders of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Tuesday called on aid donor Japan to deescalate tensions with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party following a brutal attack on two of their lawmakers outside of parliament in the capital Phnom Penh late last month.
On Oct. 26, CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamreoun and Kong Sophea were dragged from their vehicles and assaulted by protesters after attending a meeting at parliament and the opposition has blamed the CPP for orchestrating the incident—an allegation that the ruling party denies.
CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha, who is traveling with party chair Sam Rainsy in Japan this week, said they warned at a press conference in Tokyo that political tensions in Cambodia could threaten the country’s elections set for 2017 and 2018, and called on the Japanese government to intervene.
“We urged the international community—especially Japan—to reduce tensions related to the July 22, 2014 political deal in order to ensure free and fair democratic elections,” Kem Sokha wrote on his Facebook page, referring to a “culture of dialogue” established between the parties at the time.
The agreement ended an 11-month CNRP boycott of parliament over perceived irregularities in the country’s 2013 election. This year, the CPP and CNRP agreed to form a new electoral body, though relations between the parties have since broken down, in part over opposition criticism of the government’s handling of a border dispute with neighboring Vietnam.
Kem Sokha also demanded a fully transparent and independent investigation into the Oct. 26 attack on Nhay Chamreoun and Kong Sophea, who are currently recuperating from broken bones and facial lacerations in a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.
While three suspects have been taken into custody in connection with the attack, the CNRP considers the arrests insufficient and said last week its lawmakers would boycott parliament until their safety could be guaranteed.
The CNRP has called the assault a repetition of past violent incidents against other party members and suggested it was organized by the CPP in response to an anti-Hun Sen demonstration by Cambodian expatriates in Paris, which infuriated the prime minister during his visit in late October.
Before his departure to France, Hun Sen had warned his detractors that if Cambodian opposition supporters were to hold their planned demonstration against him while he was in Paris, his supporters would attack and create trouble for Sam Rainsy's supporters back home.
Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have discussed political developments in Cambodia during meetings with lawmakers and officials from Japan’s ruling and opposition parties since their Nov. 9 arrival in the country, which has provided more than U.S. $2.25 billion in development aid to Phnom Penh since 1992.
Japan has promised to help Cambodia with electoral reform, and ahead of their visit Sam Rainsy told The Cambodia Daily the opposition leaders would discuss the assistance Tokyo had committed “and what our concerns are,” adding that “the only hope for Cambodia is to have credible elections.”
On Monday, president of local policy research group Future Forum Ou Virak appealed to Cambodia’s ruling and opposition parties to end the practice of using anti-Vietnam rhetoric for political gain, saying cross-border issues should be resolved diplomatically.
In a letter sent to Hun Sen and the leaders of the CNRP, he said the two parties should establish a joint foreign affairs policy towards Vietnam and implement it accordingly, he said, adding that they should refrain from instigating any violence and discrimination as a priority.
His suggestion was rejected, however, by officials from both the ruling and opposition parties.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told RFA there is nothing controversial about relations between Cambodia and Vietnam, and slammed the opposition for calling Hun Sen’s administration a Vietnamese puppet government.
“If the government worked for Vietnam’s interests, it would not have delayed demarcation of the [controversial] border line up to this point,” he said.
“There have also been a lot of standoffs [between the two countries on the border issue]. So this shows the government will not allow Cambodia to be a subordinate state to any country.”
Pol Ham, acting chief of the CNRP in Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s absence claimed he had not seen Ou Virak’s letter, but said the opposition had a right to criticize the government’s current approach to relations with Vietnam.
“[Cambodia’s] international relationship [priority] with its neighbors is to make sure we have good relations and mutual respects [between countries] and no one country would take advantage of the other,” he said.
In July, Cambodia requested maps from France, the United States and the United Kingdom to verify its border demarcations, following accusations by the CNRP alleging that Hun Sen’s government had ceded land to Vietnam at various spots along the border, based on its own set of incorrect charts.
Cambodian activists claim that Vietnamese authorities and villagers have threatened to “kill them” on several occasions while they monitored suspected encroachment in disputed areas along the border, which spans some 1,270 kilometers (789 miles) between the two countries.
Other issues, such as a perceived increase in Vietnamese immigration to Cambodia, have also made many Cambodians wary of Vietnam’s influence over their country’s affairs.
An estimated 1.7 million people, or one in four Cambodians, died in what came to be called the “Killing Fields” after the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The regime was unseated when Vietnam invaded the country four years later.
Lawmakers demand compensation
Ou Virak’s appeal came as Nhay Chamreoun and Kong Sophea filed two separate complaints with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Tuesday demanding 100 million riel (U.S. $24,700) each in compensation from the perpetrators of the attack that targeted them.
Choung Choungy, the lawyer who filed the complaints on their behalf, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the court had accepted the documents and said he expects the authorities “to arrest the perpetrators and bring them for prosecution.”
The three suspects who were arrested last week have been accused of causing violence and damaging property. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak has said authorities are continuing their efforts to find other suspects thought to be involved in the incident.
Over the weekend, Hun Sen’s son and CPP lawmaker Hun Many took to Facebook to threaten legal action against any individuals linking him to the incident—ostensibly in response to images circulating online showing him alongside suspected assailants of the two CNRP lawmakers, The Phnom Penh Post reported.
Many has stated that he was present at the Oct. 26 demonstration, he claims it was only in his capacity as a lawmaker to receive a petition from the protesters demanding the resignation of Kem Sokha from his position as vice president of the National Assembly, or parliament.
Kem Sokha was ousted by a one-party parliamentary vote on Oct. 30.
Reported by Khe Sonorng, Prach Chev and Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun and Vuthy Tha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.