Emerging from days of silence to quash rumors that he had suffered a massive stroke, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said Tuesday that he would fulfill opposition demands to revamp the country’s tainted electoral body and for a license to set up their own television station.
Reports that Hun Sen, 61, had been ill gained steam on social media over the weekend, but the prime minister dismissed the rumors and discussed means to end a long political standoff between his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) during a visit with the disabled in Kampot province on Tuesday.
“I would like to inform you that … the CPP has agreed to amend the NEC’s responsibilities and how it is established,” Hun Sen said, addressing demands by the CNRP to reform the government-appointed National Election Committee, which critics say lacks independence from the ruling party.
The NEC declared the CPP victor of disputed elections in July last year despite widespread fraud claims, prompting elected CNRP lawmakers to boycott the National Assembly, or parliament. Several meetings between the two parties since then have failed to bring about an end to the deadlock.
Hun Sen said Tuesday that CPP members of parliament had agreed to amend the law to have the mandate of the NEC enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution—an opposition demand that the ruling party had earlier refused, leading to a breakdown in talks between the two sides last month.
He also promised to allow the CNRP to establish its own television station. All stations currently operating in Cambodia are either directly or indirectly controlled by the government or ruling party.
Hun Sen said the opposition would not be permitted to use its party logo for the television station and would have to acquire its license through a private company.
He also warned the opposition that the CPP would continue to lead the government even if the two sides were unable to come to an agreement that brings the CNRP back to the National Assembly, and threatened the boycotting lawmakers with arrest if they “continue to provoke problems.”
The prime minister did not address opposition demands for an early election. In negotiations, Hun Sen has said that if the CNRP ends its boycott of parliament, he is willing to hold the next election in February 2018—five months ahead of schedule.
“If you participate in the Assembly, it is good for you. If you don’t join the assembly we will continue to lead the government,” Hun Sen said.
“The election will be held in 2018,” he added.
Offer in writing
CNRP President Sam Rainsy welcomed Hun Sen’s announcement on the NEC and the television station license, calling it “a political turn that could end the deadlock.”
He told RFA’s Khmer Service that his party would begin the process of applying for a license, adding that the CNRP wasn’t simply demanding a TV license for itself, but also for Cambodia’s nongovernmental organizations and any others who desire access to independent media.
“We don’t want political parties to control the media,” he said.
Sam Rainsy said that the two sides would “continue to discuss” the possibility of an early election. Senior members of each party are scheduled to hold further talks on Thursday.
CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha said that the opposition would not believe Hun Sen’s offer until he delivered it in writing.
“We haven’t seen a written statement yet,” he told RFA.
“He can’t just talk about election reforms—there must be an agreement.”
Kem Sokha said that the opposition would continue to boycott parliament in the absence of a deal to end the political standoff.
Talks last month ended with the two sides deciding to draft statements on 14 points they had agreed to in principle during a meeting in March, including guidelines on how to reform voter registrations and voting lists, laws on providing financial support to political parties, and party access to independent media.
Other points included rules on election dispute resolution, election monitoring, and how to ensure neutrality of the armed forces during the vote.
The two sides also agreed that a new election should be held in the aftermath of the disputed July 28 ballot but without any decision on the timing of the fresh polls.
In April, CNRP president Sam Rainsy refused an offer from Hun Sen to sign a deal ending the deadlock on terms which the two had hashed out during talks via telephone.
When refusing Hun Sen’s offer in April, Sam Rainsy had said that the two were not in full agreement.
Rumor of stroke
On the weekend, reports suggested that Hun Sen had suffered a major stroke on Friday and was rushed to Calmette Hospital in the capital Phnom Penh before being flown to Singapore for treatment, but senior officials and sources close to the prime minister rejected the claims.
The Cambodia Daily had quoted Sam Rainsy on Sunday confirming the reports, citing “internal sources in the CPP.”
On Tuesday, Hun Sen lashed out at the opposition for furthering the rumors, according to a report by the Associated Press.
“In case I had suffered a massive stroke as was reported, you please should pack up your things and flee,” the AP reported him as saying.
“I am speaking honestly, because the ability to command all the armed forces belongs to only one person,” he said, referring to himself.
He advised his critics not to wish for his death, and said that if he should fall victim to a stroke, they had better be prepared because anything could happen to them.
Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia since 1985, is Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leader by far and has retained power amid accusations that his regime suppresses political freedoms and mistreats rights campaigners.
The prime minister said last year ahead of national elections that he planned to stay in power until he was 74.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.