Cambodia’s opposition and ruling parties, locked in a standoff since disputed polls in July last year, agreed Tuesday to form a joint committee to consider adopting electoral reforms following talks hailed by both sides as a breakthrough.
In a joint statement, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) said the panel would consist of an equal number of representatives from both sides “to study and create a mechanism to conduct election reforms.”
The committee will hold a national workshop to gather recommendations from the domestic and international communities, political parties, nongovernmental organizations, “and other relevant stakeholders,” the statement said.
It will also allow voters to contribute their opinions on electoral reform through public forums, the parties said.
The panel would be allowed to accept technical or financial support from local and foreign groups, the statement said.
The two parties had agreed in September to work together on electoral reform, but talks stalled and Tuesday’s pledge provides the first basic outline on how they will form a committee to study the issue.
CNRP legislator Son Chhay described Tuesday’s agreement, which follows the first official meeting between the parties since November, as a “victory,” adding that additional talks are in the works.
“The working group’s positive results will allow the top leaders to hold a meeting during which they will discuss other issues,” he said.
Secretary of State in the Ministry of the Interior Prum Sokha—the CPP representative—praised the talks as a step towards breaking the country’s ongoing political deadlock.
“There is no better solution then holding peaceful talks,” he said.
Cambodia has been locked into a stalemate since the country’s July elections, in which the CPP was declared the victor by the government-appointed election body, despite CNRP allegations of widespread fraud.
The CNRP has boycotted parliament and has been holding street protests after its demands for an independent probe into election irregularities and reelections were dismissed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who leads the CPP.
The last time the CPP and CNRP sat down for official talks was on Nov. 6, when five-member delegations from each party met for three hours of fruitless discussions aimed at breaking the country’s political standoff.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen met in September for the only round of top-level negotiations since the disputed election.
Last week, both the CPP and CNRP had voiced confidence that they can end the post-election political crisis, but provided no details.
But despite the progress on electoral reform, Tuesday’s meeting did little to address other key issues that have contributed to the deadlock.
Political commentator Sok Touch told RFA that Tuesday’s meeting “did little to resolve the ongoing deadlock,” but welcomed the first talks between the two sides in months.
Son Chhay said that neither the CNRP’s call for reelections or the CPP’s demand that elected opposition lawmakers end a boycott of the National Assembly, or parliament, were discussed.
Prum Sokha declined to comment whether the CPP had acknowledged in the meeting that irregularities occurred during the election, saying only that his party has been “working toward reforms since 1998.”
The CNRP also called during the meeting for the release of 21 workers and human rights activists arrested following a deadly government crackdown on an opposition-backed workers’ strike in the capital last month.
Last week, judges at the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh refused the detainees bail on the grounds that they “might compromise security and social order” if released, prompting accusations from rights groups that their case smacked of political interference.
The 21 were arrested after a Jan. 3 shootout by security forces during a strike by garment workers demanding higher minimum wages in a crackdown that left five people dead and several others wounded.
They are accused of causing intentional violence and damage to property and face up to up to five years’ imprisonment, as well as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500.
Prum Sokha said that the case against the 21 detainees is still “pending,” but did not provide further details.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.