Cambodia’s ruling and opposition parties agreed in talks Monday to work together to reform an election voter registration process and review campaign financing procedures following disputed polls in July last year.
But opposition leader Sam Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said the talks did not signal a possible end to its boycott of parliament or its demand for fresh elections following allegations of fraud in the July polls.
A working group with representatives from the CNRP and Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party (CPP) met Monday for the second time in two weeks in the capital Phnom Penh, agreeing to consider the possibility of electoral reforms.
In a joint statement, released following the four-hour meeting, the parties agreed to "organize voter registration and voting lists to ensure that all voters’ rights are protected,” as well as to “draft a law on financing political parties.”
Additionally, the statement said, the parties would “organize a framework to conduct various election reforms,” including revamping the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC), which declared the CPP victor in the July polls despite rampant irregularities.
The statement said the CPP and CNRP would also move to “create a mechanism to resolve electoral disputes,” and “provide guidelines for the use of media by all political parties.”
The working group announced that it would meet again on March 10 to continue discussions.
Representatives from each party also expressed confidence that the meetings of the working group would eventually lead to talks between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, though they said that no firm dates have been set.
Monday’s meeting follows Feb. 18 talks in which the two sides agreed to form a joint committee to consider adopting electoral reforms, which they said would consist of an equal number of representatives from both parties and would hold a national workshop to gather recommendations from a variety of stakeholders.
The panel would also allow voters to contribute their opinions on electoral reform through public forums and would be allowed to accept technical or financial support from local and foreign groups.
The parties had agreed in September to work together on electoral reform, but talks stalled, and February’s meeting had been the first between the two since then.
Cambodia has been locked in a stalemate since the July 28 elections after the NEC ignored CNRP demands for an independent probe into election irregularities and declared the CPP victor.
The CNRP boycotted parliament and has been holding street protests after its repeated calls for reelections were dismissed by Hun Sen.
Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen met in September for the only round of top-level negotiations since the disputed election but failed to forge a political compromise.
On Monday, leader of the CNRP working team Son Chhay told reporters that his party had renewed its demands for a reelection, but refused to say whether the collaboration on electoral reform would set the stage for an end to the opposition boycott of the National Assembly.
“[Today’s agreement] doesn't mean that we need to work together [inside the National Assembly],” he said.
“We can't just join the assembly [without considering other issues].”
Deputy Prime Minister and CPP working team leader Binh Chhin meanwhile urged the CNRP to participate in parliament.
“In the final stage, it is inevitable that the CNRP will have to participate in the National Assembly,” he said.
“If they want to amend laws, they can't work from outside the parliament.”
Exchanges between the two parties had been heated in recent days, with Sam Rainsy last week comparing his bid to unseat Hun Sen to the recent ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Sam Rainsy had vowed to renew mass protests of the disputed elections following the lift of a ban on public gatherings, urging Cambodia’s security forces to follow the example of the Ukrainian police in siding with protesters instead of clamping down on them.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said such statements imply the use of force to institute leadership change and threatened the opposition leader with a lawsuit for allegedly inciting violence in the nation.
Also on Monday, Phnom Penh Municipal security guards clashed with villagers displaced by land grabs demanding that the Supreme Court reconsider allowing bail for 21 workers and human rights activists arrested following a deadly government crackdown in the capital in January.
Last month, the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh refused the detainees bail on the grounds that the 21 “might compromise security and social order” if freed, despite a deluge of appeals from local and international groups for their release.
On Monday around 100 villagers wearing white uniforms clashed with several hundred security and anti-riot police who prevented them from marching to the Supreme Court, protesters said.
At least two villagers were injured during the clashes, including one woman who was hit in the face until she was bleeding and another woman whose leg was left swollen after being struck by authorities, they said.
“The security guards kicked me two times,” Phoung Sophea told RFA's Khmer Service.
Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath said that villagers were in the midst of a peaceful march to the courthouse, but that authorities had charged at them violently.
He described the police action as a “serious human rights violation.”
“This police crackdown goes against the government's order [to lift the ban on public gatherings],” he said.
“They also acted in disrespect of the country's constitution.”
The 21 detainees 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.
Held in Kampong Cham province, the detainees 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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.