Cambodian Opposition Lifts Conditions on Talks with Ruling Party

cambodia-cnrp-press-conference-oct-2013-1000.jpg Sam Rainsy (R) and Kem Sokha (L) speak to reporters during a press conference in Phnom Penh, Oct. 31, 2013.

Cambodia’s opposition said Thursday it is prepared to hold talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party without any preconditions in a fresh bid to end a political deadlock three months after disputed national elections.

The move signaled a shift by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which days earlier had said it would not hold talks with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) until its three key demands, including the establishment of a committee to investigate election irregularities, were met.

The other conditions were seeking the resignation of all members of the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the country’s polls, and the implementation of recommendations from U.N. experts and NGOs on electoral and other reforms.

The three issues will remain part of any future negotiations, CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha told reporters Thursday.

“I would like to clarify that these are not conditions,” he said.

“They are only part of the agenda that the CNRP will take to the talks.”

Earlier this week, CNRP and CPP officials had traded blame for failing to schedule a new round of talks to end the country’s political deadlock following the collapse of their September talks.

But CNRP President Sam Rainsy said Thursday that he wanted to “renew talks between the two parties” in a situation where they can “meet face to face.”

“[In this way] we can speak honestly about what we can and can’t agree on,” he said.

“Then we can find a middle way.”

The opposition leader told reporters that he had held a phone conversation on Thursday with Minister of the Interior and senior CPP official Sar Kheng, who said the ruling party would consider the CNRP’s new request for talks, without agreeing to anything firm.

The CPP has insisted that CNRP stop its boycott of parliament before the resumption of any talks. 

Political crisis

The political crisis erupted after the July 28 elections when the opposition challenged the poll results, citing fraud and other irregularities.

The government-appointed NEC awarded the CPP 68 parliamentary seats to the CNRP’s 55 in the election, but the opposition says it was robbed of victory.

The CNRP had refused to take its seats in the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, but the CPP unilaterally convened the legislature, re-appointed Hun Sen as premier and set up all the parliamentary commissions comprising its own members.

The CNRP said the CPP moves took Cambodia “back to a one-party system of governance.”

Hun Sen, who is into his 28th year in power, defended the formation of parliament as legal and has rejected claims of election irregularities.

The CPP is insisting that CNRP members elected to the National Assembly based on the election’s official results must be sworn in as lawmakers before any negotiations can take place.

Setting up talks

Sam Rainsy said that the two parties share “common interests” and should be able to hold a “fruitful meeting.”

“The CPP … [said] it was willing to commit to deep reforms of the electoral process. This is a common interest the two parties share,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, the CNRP would continue to “advocate for justice” for disenfranchised voters by holding demonstrations and petitioning the international community for intervention in the country’s political crisis.

Last week, tens of thousands of supporters joined the CNRP’s rally in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to back calls for an independent probe into election fraud and delivered petitions with the thumbprint signatures of 2 million Cambodians to the missions of the U.N. and foreign embassies in the capital.

Sar Kheng told RFA on Wednesday that his party believes the CNRP is “stalling for time” and that the opposition has no intention to hold talks.

He reiterated earlier calls for opposition lawmakers to take their seats at the National Assembly before any talks take place.

“The CPP’s stance is that if the CNRP joins the National Assembly, it is good—it goes along with the people’s will,” he said.

Sar Kheng added that the CNRP must also first participate in the National Assembly before any changes can be made to the NEC.

In the meantime, he said, the CPP is accepting recommendations from NGOs and other nongovernment stakeholders, showing that the ruling party is committed to reform.

Narrowing gap

Political commentator Lao Mong Hai called the CNRP’s announcement a “positive political development,” adding that the gap between the two parties appears to be narrowing.

“I have seen some positive signs [in relations],” he said, counting among them the CNRP’s decision to drop preconditions to talks and that the two parties appear to agree on a need for NEC reforms.

But he said that before any move can be made to remove the current members of the NEC, “the government must first conduct an investigation into the electoral process.”

“As I understand it, the issues holding up further talks were based on what the two parties had discussed in previous negotiations,” he said.

“The two sides have now become more flexible in their stances.”

Reported by Zakariya Tin and Huot Vuthy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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