Leaders from the two main opposition parties in Cambodia signed an agreement Tuesday to merge their groups and to work towards the return of top opposition leader Sam Rainsy from exile ahead of the country’s 2013 general elections.
Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) president Sam Rainsy and his Human Rights Party (HRP) counterpart Kem Sokha inked the deal in the Philippine capital Manila after two days of meetings, the two groups confirmed in a joint statement detailing their intentions.
“The two parties are working to merge the two parties into one new single party. Democrats and nationalists will participate in the new party to bring about democracy and to protect national interests,” the statement read.
The SRP and HRP had tried unsuccessfully to unite over the last two years, but expressed confidence Tuesday that together they could pose a significant challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“The two parties think that regime change must be done peacefully through a free and fair election,” the statement read, adding that they would work toward making the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees elections in the country, more independent.
The parties had previously criticized the NEC, saying its members are biased toward the ruling CPP, which has ruled the country for three decades, and which easily won the country’s commune-level elections in 2002, 2007, and 2012 amidst political violence and other problems.
The two parties also pledged to work together to guarantee the return of self-exiled party leader Sam Rainsy ahead of the parliamentary polls slated for mid-2013.
Sam Rainsy currently lives in exile in France and is facing a two-year jail sentence for uprooting markers at the border with Vietnam in 2009, if he returns. He has said that he plans to return for the elections to lead the opposition against the CPP.
The statement said the parties would call for an end to what they alleged was the Cambodian government’s use of the country’s judicial system to intimidate politicians and human rights activists.
Later on Tuesday, during a joint video conference from Manila, Sam Rainsy told reporters that the two parties had decided to merge to “rescue” Cambodia.
“We must start our work to rescue the country because our country is being ruled by dictators,” he said, claiming that Cambodia’s current leaders had “ceded part of the country to Vietnam.”
Leaders of Vietnam and Cambodia plan to finalize the demarcation of their shared border, which would result in each side exchanging swaths of land.
Many Cambodians are 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.
Vietnam occupied the country for a decade before withdrawing its troops and signing the Paris Peace Agreement to restore sovereignty and stability to Cambodia.
Sam Rainsy went on to say that he would lead the new party as president, while Kem Sokha would act as the party’s deputy president.
He declined to provide any schedule for formally establishing the new party, though Kem Sokha said it would be “soon.”
“We are establishing a new party according to a democratic structure with legislative, executive, and judicial committees to allow for checks and balances so that other democrats will join as well,” Kem Sokha said.
The merger was praised by democracy groups on Tuesday, though more cautiously by the ruling party.
Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, called the merger “a historic event” and said that the two parties are likely to increase the number of their votes in upcoming elections.
Government spokesman and senior CPP official Phay Siphan also welcomed the merger Tuesday, but said it was unlikely that the new group would win out against the ruling party.
“Even though the two parties will merge, they can’t compete with the CPP,” he said.
The SRP and HRP attempted to merge ahead of local-level elections for commune council chiefs held last month, but were unable to decide upon common goals. The parties set the wheels in motion for a merger nearly two years ago, but had so far been unwilling to see eye-to-eye.
The SRP won 22 commune council chief positions in June’s election while the HRP won 18. The SRP holds 26 seats in the National Assembly, or parliament, compared to three HRP seats. By contrast, the CPP won an estimated 1,592 of 1,633 commune chief positions and holds 90 of 123 National Assembly seats.
Experts have said that the united parties will face difficulty in next year’s election without their leader, Sam Rainsy, heading the election campaign.
Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.