Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy, fresh from a trip to the European Union, called Wednesday on the country’s ruling party to return to the negotiating table in a bid to end a nine-month political standoff since disputed elections last year.
Sam Rainsy said that EU leaders had asked that his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “resolve the deadlock peacefully,” speaking to reporters at the Phnom Penh International Airport.
But he said that the CPP needs to do more in its overtures to the opposition in order to find a resolution to the ongoing dispute.
“Our stance is that we have constantly prepared for talks to seek an appropriate solution,” Sam Rainsy said.
“It is not up to the CNRP alone, it is also up to the other party [CPP] as well, to see if they want to seek a solution.”
Ahead of Sam Rainsy’s two-week visit to the EU, the opposition chief had refused an invitation by Hun Sen to sign a deal to end the standoff on terms which the two had hashed out during talks via telephone, saying they were not in full agreement.
The two leaders agreed to revamp the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC), which had declared the CPP the victor in the July 28 elections, despite CNRP claims of widespread election irregularities.
The NEC membership is currently handpicked by the ruling CPP. The CNRP wants the membership to be more representative of the electorate and to be approved by two-thirds of the National Assembly, the country’s parliament.
Based on the official results of the July elections, the CPP won 68 seats in parliament to the CNRP’s 55, but the CNRP has claimed it won at least 63 and boycotted the National Assembly since it started its sessions in September.
But Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy remained far apart on a date for new elections, with the prime minister offering to hold polls in February 2018, five months before his term is set to end. Previously, the CNRP wanted a mid-term election in early 2016.
Both Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha were out of the country during much of April, with the latter traveling to the United States to drum up support for the opposition and to meet with U.S. officials, and little progress has been made since the proposed deal fell apart.
Sam Rainsy said Wednesday that the CNRP was “continuing talks” with the CPP to seek solutions and urged “all parties to work together to resolve issues of national crisis,” including land disputes, deforestation, poverty, unemployment, and immigration.
Freedom park visit
After speaking with reporters, Sam Rainsy visited Freedom Park—the capital’s designated protest space which has been kept off limits to gatherings with political undertones most of this year, and where workers' unions and nongovernmental organizations are planning to hold a May 1 Labor Day rally even though permission has been refused by the authorities.
Sam Rainsy asked the government to “give protestors back the park,” adding that “the country’s constitution guarantees the people their full rights to freedom of expression.”
The planned rally comes despite warnings from Cambodian authorities, who on Wednesday had deployed barbed wire barricades to prevent people from entering the site.
Authorities have indicated that force may be used to disperse any gathering at Freedom Park on May 1 and referred to a Jan. 3 government crackdown on garment workers’ strikes in the capital that left five people dead and nearly 40 wounded.
A day after the crackdown, when security forces opened fire on protesters, police violently dispersed CNRP-led mass demonstrations calling for Hun Sen’s resignation in Freedom Park, and no major gathering has been allowed there since.
Sam Rainsy said he would regularly meet with CNRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua and others who gather daily at the park to demand its return.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said Wednesday that the 18 opposition-aligned trade unions and associations still plan to rally at the park on May 1, according to a report by China’s official Xinhua news agency.
“We expect that a large number of workers will join us. If the authorities do not allow us to enter the park, we will meet and march outside the park,” he said.
Later on Wednesday, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha also met with the U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri to discuss what the two called “rights violations” by the CPP, including restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the ongoing political standoff.
“We told her that the deadlock was a result of the CPP refusing to resolve the dispute and trying to split the opposition party,” Kem Sokha told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“If the CPP wants to talk, we must have the freedom to speak on equal terms … We won’t hold discussions under repression, threat, or violence.”
“The U.N. still believes that the two political parties should continue to hold talks, but we said [that due to] political pressure and [threats of] violence … we can’t trust the CPP,” he said.
“[Pansieri] said any political solution must be a win-win [for both sides].”
Pansieri, who is on a five-day visit to Cambodia looking into post-election violence in the country, had met with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong Tuesday and called for a transparent investigation into the January crackdown on striking workers.
Reported by Vann Vicha and Samean Yun. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.