At the urging of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party may start talks with the opposition aimed at ending a political crisis that has seen Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers, human rights workers, and an election official thrown in jail, as well as a police raid on the opposition party’s headquarters.
In the Tuesday evening phone call, Ban Ki-moon urged Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhon to resume the “culture of dialogue between the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP),” according to a U.N. summary of the call.
Ban also pushed the Cambodian government to “ensure full respect for human rights, including the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.”
There were hints this week that a rapprochement between the parties may be in the offing as CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said party working groups may meet in the near future.
While representatives of the parties may begin discussions, he said they would not include CPP senior official and Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng and acting CNRP president Kem Sokha.
“The date has not been selected yet, and the subject was also not known,” Sok Eysan said. “But this commission will discuss ways to promote the culture of dialogue.”
He dismissed the importance of Ban’s phone call, saying the U.N. leader “doesn’t understand” Cambodia.
“All the issues that have resulted in some going to jail, and some being detained were all under court procedures because those individuals committed actions that are against the law,” he said.
Confused about Cambodia
“I think that it could be that his Excellency Ban Ki-Moon manages 200 countries, so there may be some gaps in his knowledge, or maybe he is too busy with Middle East issues, with bombardments and massacres, so that he is confused about Cambodia’s situation,” Sok Eysan added.
The U.N. in fact closely monitors Cambodia and played a leading role in facilitating Cambodia’s recovery from the more than a decade of war in the country that followed the 1975-79 rule of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has maintained an office in the country since 1993.
While RFA could not reach CNRP officials for comment, CNRP senior official Eng Chhai Eang told a local newspaper that he understands Ban’s concerns, adding that he lacked any concrete information on the meeting between the two parties’ working groups.
So Chantha, a political science professor who lectures at several Cambodian universities, said the U.N. can exert some influence on Cambodia as the country is a member and is pledged to respect the legal procedures and democratic principles stated by the U.N.
“If Cambodia does not pay attention to such concerns, I think the U.N. with over 100 member countries can examine what are the wrong deeds of Cambodia,” he said. “So that puts pressure on Cambodia”
Cham Bunthet, an international relations and leadership development researcher and Young Leadership Forum founder, disagreed, saying the U.N. appeal and civil society have little chance to influence the government or the ruling party.
“This political game is not going to end unless the people and the opposition party, who want changes in the society, have a clear picture of what their demands are,” he said.
The U.N. is not the only governmental body outside of Cambodia that is expressing concern over the political crises in that country. The European Union approved a resolution on Thursday that “deplores the worsening climate for opposition politicians and human rights activists in Cambodia.”
While the international community is pushing Hun Sen’s government to respect human rights, Cambodians are intimidated by Phnom Penh’s actions.
Some people in Kampong Siem district, Kampong Cham province, told RFA they are scared to provide thumbprints to the CNRP officials or activists because the authorities may conduct forensic examinations of all the thumbprints collected on petitions asking King Norodom Sihamoni to seek the release of human rights and political activists arrested by the government.
Chheng Phy, a villager in Srak commune, Kampong Siem district, told RFA that people are very afraid of providing their thumbprints. In Cambodia thumbprints are used instead of signatures on government petitions.
So far, several officials of the opposition party in the districts of Kampong Siem, Kang Meas, and Chamkar Leu, have been called in for questioning and detained by the authorities, and forced to sign an agreement to stop collecting the thumbprints.
Kampong Cham provincial police commissioner Pen Roth told RFA that the authorities took measures to “educate” people and thumbprints collectors, but did not seize their petitions or detain them. He said they received complaints from people that thumbprint collectors were using their thumbprints for other purposes.
“These were people’s complaints, so we need to look into it, but we did not hold them accountable,” he said.
In Ratanakiri, police officers in Bar Kaoe district on June 9th detained a CNRP commune council member while he was collecting people’s thumbprints. Pouk Pyoeun was released after being detained for 2 hours.
He told RFA that he is afraid because the police threatened him, and he has instructed activists in villages to stop gathering thumbprints.
“The district council [of CNRP] asked me to collect the thumbprints supporting the petition,” said Pouk Pyoeun.
“The Bar Kaoe district police officer took me [to the police station] at 8 a.m. and detained me.”
Bar Kaoe district police officer Chuob Vannarak said Pouk Pyoeun was detained because the CNRP official had illegally collected the thumbprints.
In Mondulkiri province, police in Memang commune, Kaoe Seima district, also detained an opposition official who was collecting thumbprints. Chhark Lisa, who is deputy of the CNRP Executive Commission of Memang commune, was released after being detained for two hours and agreed to stop collecting the thumbprints.
Chhark Lisa told RFA that the people had provided their thumbprints voluntarily, but that the police considered the act against the law.
“They took everything,” she said. “They checked all the documents in my bag. They also took my photo and my ID, and I signed the agreement and they also took a photo of it.”
CNRP provincial council member Khum Kan said it is the police themselves who are violating the law.
“We regret that the authorities acted against the law and procedures,” he said.
A series of actions
Hun Sen’s government and the CPP have taken a number of actions that strike at the heart of the CNRP and other critics of the government and the party.
The government has ordered Kem Sokha to appear before the court in connection with at least two complaints that have been filed related to an affair he is alleged to have had with a young hairdresser.
Kem Sokha has refused to appear, and the CNRP and its supporters claim the charges are a trumped-up attempt to damage the party ahead of elections slated for 2017 and 2018.
He has been holed up in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters since heavily armed police raided the office compound in May searching for him.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy has been staying in France or traveling since an arrest warrant was issued for him in November over a 2008 defamation case and he was removed from his office and stripped of his parliamentary immunity. After Sam Rainsy left the country, the CNRP named Kem Sokha its acting president.
The conflict with Kem Sokha is just one of several legal cases the government or the ruling CPP have brought against opposition party members.
A National Election Committee member and four staffers with the rights group ADHOC, along with a U.N. worker, are facing bribery or accessory charges after being accused of attempting to pay the hairdresser to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Kem Sokha.
Human rights workers say the scandal is being used by the ruling party to crack down on its political opponents and silence critics ahead of the elections. Hun Sen has ruled the country for 31 years.
CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An is currently in jail and has been denied bail because the court said releasing him would cause social unrest because he is a member of parliament and that the court has yet to finish his interrogation.
The charges arose from Um Sam An’s accusations that the ruling CPP had failed to stop land encroachment by Vietnam and used improper maps to demarcate the border between the two former colonies of France.
Reported by Tha Thai, Sok Ratha and Saut Sokheng for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.