Cambodia’s opposition party has called on the government to expedite a “dragging” investigation into a violent attack on two of its lawmakers and urged the United Nations to join the probe after the international body expressed concern over the assault.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers Nhay Chamreoun and Kong Sophea were dragged from their vehicles and assaulted by protesters as the two men attended a meeting of the legislature at the National Assembly building on the morning of Oct. 26.
The attack occurred as more than 1,000 supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) surrounded the parliament building, calling for deputy president of the CNRP Kem Sokha to step down from his position as first vice president of the National Assembly. Kem Sokha was ousted by lawmakers late last week.
The CPP has been accused of orchestrating the assault—a charge it has denied—and Prime Minister Hun Sen has publicly called on authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
On Sunday, the CNRP issued a statement slamming a government-appointed investigative commission for “dragging” its feet in arresting suspects, despite a number of videos and photos showing the assault being widely-shared on Facebook by members of the public.
The opposition expressed concern that the delay in identifying the “perpetrators and masterminds” behind the attack was undermining the public’s trust in the government, adding that the investigation should be carried out with full transparency.
“The suspects have not been arrested, which means that [they are] still moving about freely,” CNRP lawmaker Yem Ponhearith told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We in the CNRP remain concerned over our own safety in fulfilling our tasks and duties [as lawmakers],” he said, adding that the opposition party was calling for the government to investigate the incident in a “fast, independent and reliable manner.”
In its statement, the CNRP also requested that the government invite the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to join the investigation, expressing doubt that the probe could be carried out in an independent manner amid allegations of the CPP’s involvement.
In response to the CNRP statement, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the investigative commission is working with all relevant authorities, including the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Interior, to arrest the perpetrators of the attack.
He said the incident had not only caused suffering for the CNRP, but for the nation as a whole, and had damaged Cambodia’s international reputation.
But he added that the investigative commission must be allowed to proceed according to standards and would not answer to the demands of the opposition.
“I heard that the commission has received a number of leads,” he said, adding that the body was not at liberty to discuss them publicly.
“In the meantime … [the committee] has appealed to the public to come forward with any new evidence.”
Phay Siphan added that the U.N. would not be invited to join the investigation because the incident is outside of the OHCHR’s jurisdiction.
Members of the investigative commission were not immediately available for comment regarding the progress of the probe.
The CNRP issued its statement days after the OHCHR expressed concerned over what it called “a worsening climate for opposition politicians and activists in Cambodia” after the assault on the two lawmakers, who are recuperating from broken bones and facial lacerations at a hospital in Thailand.
In a statement issued Oct. 30, the OHCHR referred to the assault as “organized” and noted that reports suggest police and other state security forces looked on while it took place—in stark contrast to their response to protests that have been organized in the past by groups criticizing the government.
“It is the government's responsibility to ensure that individuals are not targeted for their political affiliation or for expressing dissenting views,” OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said in the statement.
While the OHCHR welcomed the establishment of an investigative commission into the incident, it stressed that the investigation would only be credible if it was “independent, impartial, thorough and prompt.”
“Those responsible for the violence must be brought to justice,” Shamdasani said, adding that the government should take all necessary measures to ensure the security of all the democratically-elected representatives of the people of Cambodia, irrespective of their political affiliation.
The OHCHR did not respond to questions from local media on Sunday about whether it would join an investigation into the beatings.
Call for independent probe
A day after the OHCHR released its statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Cambodia’s government to ask the U.N. to launch its own investigation into the incident, and make a commitment to act on its findings.
“The brazen nature of these brutal attacks on members of parliament sends the message that the little remaining democratic space in Cambodia is seriously threatened,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in the Oct. 31 statement.
“Donor governments should make clear that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s condemnation of the attacks only have credibility if he calls for an independent U.N. investigation.”
Human Rights Watch said interviews with the two injured lawmakers strongly suggested government involvement in the incident, and linked the attack to a wider crackdown on the opposition, as evidenced by Kem Sokha’s subsequent ouster.
“The ruling party’s removal of Kem Sokha from his parliamentary post is a blatant attempt to divide and scare the opposition into submission,” Adams said.
“One day Hun Sen says he wants to work with the opposition, the next day they are attacked and removed from their positions in parliament. No deal with Hun Sen is worth the paper it is written on.”
On Monday, Kong Sophea’s father Kong Koam resigned as president of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP)—which formed the CNRP with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP) ahead of Cambodia’s 2013 elections—citing “health conditions and old age.”
The 75-year-old had served as Cambodia’s Ambassador to Vietnam before becoming Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and a member of the central committee of the CPP in 1985.
Kong Koam later defected and spent 20 years as a member of the SRP.
It wasn’t immediately clear if his decision to resign was linked to last week’s incident.
Reported by Leng Maly for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.