Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Wednesday defended his party’s decision to forge a political settlement with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), saying it was in the interest of implementing key electoral reform and bringing greater freedom to the country.
Speaking in a video posted to his Facebook account, the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said that the party’s decision to end a boycott of parliament was necessary in order to amend the country’s laws and reform the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the nation’s polls.
His statement appears to be aimed at CNRP members in the dark about the agreement clinched Tuesday with Hun Sen in which the party agreed to join parliament after a nearly one-year absence and the CPP pledged to back reforms to the government-appointed NEC.
“My dear patriots, before judging [the CNRP’s stance in its agreement with the CPP], please wait until the outcome is made plain, then form your opinion on whether what we did was right or wrong,” he said.
“No other option was better than the one that we chose.”
Sam Rainsy said that in breaking the political deadlock with the CPP, the CNRP had “ended the tense situation” in place since the ruling party was declared the victor by the NEC in elections in July last year despite allegations of widespread irregularities.
The standoff had led elected CNRP lawmakers to boycott the National Assembly, or parliament, and prompted opposition supporters to stage frequent protests demanding Hun Sen’s resignation and re-elections—several of which were met with violence by security personnel.
Sam Rainsy said that Tuesday’s compromise would also lead to the reopening of Freedom Park, the only public space provided for protests in the capital Phnom Penh, which was closed off by authorities in the aftermath of a deadly crackdown on CNRP-supported striking garment workers in January.
Following the closure, a ban on protests was put in place in the capital, which the opposition leader said would be rescinded through the deal.
He said the deal also resulted in the release from jail Tuesday of seven CNRP lawmakers and a party activist who had been detained and charged with insurrection last week.
The eight were arrested after clashes broke out between security personnel and opposition supporters demanding a reopening of Freedom Park.
“We ended the tense situation, those who were imprisoned were released, soon Freedom Park will be reopened, and the street protest ban will be rescinded. So we will have our rights and freedom back,” he said.
Sam Rainsy said that only by joining parliament can CNRP lawmakers vote for electoral reforms to be incorporated in the country’s constitution.
“The most important thing is that we want a reform of the NEC. The reform of the NEC must be done through the National Assembly, because until we amend the laws and the constitution, we cannot change it,” he said.
“The NEC members have been taking orders from or supporting the CPP, but now the NEC will consist of nine members—four from the CNRP, four from the CPP and one who will be unanimously chosen by the two parties. Therefore, no one party has the upper hand on another.”
The CNRP president said his party would work to “ensure that the NEC is unbiased … to guarantee a proper and fair election” in the future.
As part of the agreement, both parties will agree upon a date for the country’s next national elections, which were originally scheduled for July 2018.
Agence France-Presse cited a CPP official as saying that the new elections would not be held before February 2018, despite calls from the opposition to hold them earlier.
Reactions to deal
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, on Wednesday “warmly welcomed” the agreement that ended the long-lasting deadlock but said it “only marks the beginning of the true work of reforming the State institutions.”
“This is an opportunity to carry out a comprehensive reform of lasting character in line with international standards, as outlined in my reports on electoral, judicial, and parliamentary reforms, so that the situation which has been prevailing since the National Assembly elections in July 2013 does not repeat itself.”
Last month, at the end of a 10-day visit to Cambodia, Subedi said that his investigations had led him to believe that the country’s judicial, legislative, and executive branches are ineffective at promoting and protecting the rights of the people.
The Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) also welcomed the deal, saying in a statement that the two sides should resolve their differences in the legislature.
“This is a step in the right direction. Parliament is the place to work together to find solutions to political disputes through dialogue,” the group’s secretary general Martin Chungong said.
“IPU is ready to help with this so that the Cambodian parliament can deliver on the mandate given it by the Cambodian people.”
Other groups expressed concerns with the vagueness of the agreement and criticized the CNRP for dropping many of its earlier demands, including one to endorse NEC membership with a two-thirds majority in parliament, instead of an absolute majority, as decided in Tuesday’s deal.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) chairman Ou Virak as saying that details were omitted in several key areas of the agreement, ensuring “there will be a lot of wrangling in the future.”
He expected a “lot of problems” on the selection of the nine members of the NEC, especially the one who is to be jointly chosen by the CPP and CNRP.
The Post also quoted Laura Thornton, the resident director at the National Democratic Institute, which monitors elections and has suggested key reforms, as calling the agreement “very disappointing.”
“We’ve stood firmly behind certain key positions that are necessary in order to improve the credibility of elections in Cambodia, and I don’t see those reflected in the statement. I can only be hopeful they are coming later,” she said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.