A meeting held between Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and the former head of the banned opposition party Kem Sokha during a funeral for Hun Sen’s mother-in-law was a matter of formality and does not herald a political reconciliation, the country’s ruling party said Wednesday.
Hun Sen held a 50-minute meeting on Tuesday with the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), now on trial for treason, after he sent condolences over the death of Hun Sen’s mother-in-law and attended her funeral in the capital Phnom Penh, the government-aligned online Fresh News service reported, without saying whether political issues were raised.
The meeting has led to much speculation about whether the two leaders might resolve their differences stemming from the September 2017 arrest of Kem Sokha over an alleged plot to overthrow the government and a ban of the CNRP by the Supreme Court in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
On Wednesday, CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan dismissed talk of resolution between the two, including whether charges might be dropped against Kem Sokha.
“We, the CPP, still do not view this as a political breakthrough,” he said.
“[Kem Sokha’s case] is a matter of law—rule of law and democracy—that we all uphold. Therefore, the gesture of respect and condolence at a relative’s funeral cannot be considered a solution to resolve a legal matter.”
CPP and CNRP officials have refused to elaborate on what was discussed during the Tuesday meeting, but representatives from Kem Sokha’s camp seemed to suggest that the two men largely shared a moment of sadness over the May 4 death of Hun Sen’s mother-in-law Bun Seangly.
Meng Sopheary, Kem Sokha’s attorney, told RFA’s Khmer Service that she was unable to say whether the sit-down could lead to a reconciliation.
“Kem Sokha went there to express condolences to Samdech Hun Sen on the loss of his mother-in-law,” she said using an honorific title for the prime minister.
Kem Sokha’s Cabinet Chief Muth Chantha said in a statement on his Facebook page that Kem Sokha had consoled Hun Sen during the meeting but added that the two had also “discussed issues relevant to the national and people’s interests,” without providing further details.
Meeting welcomed by public
Sar Mory, the president of the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN), noted that regardless of what was discussed, the public has welcomed the meeting between the two political rivals.
“People want to see them engage in a culture of dialogue to resolve national issues such as the coronavirus and [likely trade sanctions from the European Union over democratic rollbacks],” he said.
“I think that if they continue to argue, our national interests will suffer.”
Social development researcher Seng Sary told RFA such gestures could lead to a thawing of political relations but warned that they may not resolve the main conflict between the CPP and CNRP, which he said had become “a personal matter.”
“This is especially true between Hun Sen and [acting CNRP chief] Sam Rainsy, as their feud has become more personal, and it will be difficult for them to reconcile and tolerate one another,” he said.
“I think the chance for Kem Sokha to reconcile with Prime Minister Hun Sen is higher than that for Sam Rainsy, because Hun Sen and Kem Sokha don’t have a history of insulting and humiliating each other.”
Dara Vichhay, a resident of Phnom Penh, said he was happy to see Hun Sen and Kem Sokha sit and talk to each other because for several years he has only seen Hun Sen threaten and intimidate the CNRP, and jail its leaders.
“As a citizen, I wish to see all politicians act in a mature way and work to benefit the people,” he said.
Rival party leaders in Cambodia have a history of overcoming differences to comfort one another during the loss of a loved one.
In 2013, when Hun Sen’s father died, Sam Rainsy sent him a letter of condolence from self-imposed exile. Shortly after, the prime minister asked King Norodom Sihamoni to pardon him, paving the way for his return to participate in the country’s general election.
In August 2015, Sam Rainsy was again forced to flee the country to avoid a string of charges brought against him by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court that he maintains are politically motivated. However, when Sam Rainsy’s own mother-in-law died in 2016, Hun Sen sent his son to attend the funeral.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.