Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni swore in opposition leader Sam Rainsy and 54 others from his party as lawmakers Tuesday, bringing to an end their 10-month boycott of parliament following disputed national elections.
The ceremony at the Royal Palace in the capital Phnom Penh came two weeks after Sam Rainsy, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and Prime Minister Hun Sen reached a political settlement.
The agreement, in which Hun Sen agreed to embrace key electoral reforms, broke a deadlock following the opposition’s refusal to recognize the victory by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the July 2013 polls.
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said that the opposition MPs were at long last “taking on the roles given to us by the voters” and could join the National Assembly on Friday.
“This is for the protection of the people’s rights and for the benefit of the country,” he said.
Son Chhay said the question of CNRP’s call for electoral reforms had been “resolved” and that the two parties would continue to cooperate going forward.
He denied that opposition lawmakers had ended the boycott of the National Assembly because of political pressure following the weekend arrest of three CNRP youth leaders and a court summons requiring seven opposition lawmakers to submit to questioning on Aug. 11 over a violent protest in July.
“We have worked [to get what we wanted] for many months [before participating in the Assembly],” he said.
“We waited until all of our demands were met, so political pressure was not our reason to join the assembly.”
He said that the three activists arrested over the weekend “will be released later,” while the issue of the lawmakers who were summoned to court would also “be resolved” soon.
The seven opposition lawmakers were arrested over a July 15 CNRP protest calling on the government to reopen Freedom Park—the only place where protests were allowed in the capital before it was closed to the public in January.
The protest sparked clashes with security personnel, leaving at least 40 people injured.
The lawmakers had been released on bail following the July 22 deal brokered between Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen, who agreed to implement reforms, including changes to the government-appointed National Election Commission (NEC), or electoral body.
The NEC had come under fire from various groups for declaring the CPP the victor of last year’s elections despite widespread allegations of fraud.
CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha said by joining the National Assembly, or parliament, the 55 elected opposition lawmakers would receive immunity from prosecution and be able push for reforms without the threat of legal action.
“Today, we are able to advocate peacefully without interference from the court,” he said.
“We won’t have any fear [to advocate] because of immunity [for lawmakers]. The King has granted it to us.”
Senior CPP lawmaker Chheang Von said his party welcomed the opposition’s first step to join parliament.
“I believe all CPP members consider this a success for the people. They will find it to be a sign of peace and stability,” he said, adding that the swearing in ceremony had “put an end to the fragility” of relations between the two parties.
“The CNRP will advocate inside the National Assembly, which will put at ease those who voted for them … They will have 123 lawmakers working for them,” referring to both the 55 opposition seats and the 68 remaining seats in the parliament—all of which are occupied by ruling party MPs.
As part of the July 22 agreement between the CNRP and CPP, the ruling party-dominated NEC will be overhauled and renamed, with four of its members chosen by each party and a key ninth member jointly selected.
The makeup of the new electoral body will be enshrined in a new provision of the constitution, which the two parties have been drafting for the past two weeks, following opposition demands that details of the reform be made public before it join parliament.
According to a report by the Cambodia Daily, in a deal finalized on Monday, following final demands from the CPP, the new provision will guarantee only the “four-four-one” composition of the new NEC and its financial autonomy and independence from the government.
Not included in the provision are CNRP proposals for immunity for members of the reformed NEC or details about how they will be replaced if they are unable to fulfill their duties, the report said, adding that these points will be included in new legislation.
The Daily quoted Sam Rainsy as saying that instead of immunity, NEC members would receive protections similar to those granted members of the Constitutional Council and the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, citing minutes of a bipartisan working group meeting on Monday.
The law governing the Constitutional Council says that its members are not subject to penal or civil sanction for decisions taken while fulfilling their duties, but will lose their position if convicted of any misdemeanor or felony.
The CNRP had demanded immunity for the nine members of the new NEC, but that proposal was rejected by the CPP, which said it is not international practice to offer such extensive protection to election organizers.
The CNRP request came after Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek, who was selected by both parties as the ninth member of the new NEC, said she would only accept the position if all NEC members were granted immunity, among other conditions.
The Daily quoted Licadho technical supervisor Am Sam Ath as saying that Pung Chhiv Kek was considering her options based on Monday’s agreement.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.