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CAMBODIA:A compromise based on national interests and people

CAMBODIA: A compromise based on the high national interests and the people

July 28 , 2014

By Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

It is an irony that Prime Minister Hun Sen, who clings to political power as the result of alleged electoral irregularities and fraud and who refuses to permit any impartial investigation of the allegations is being legitimized by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party that had wanted him to step down.

The 7-article July 22 Agreement signed by the leaders of the two primary political parties, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, put an end to the year-long political deadlock – at least on paper: Both parties agree “to work together in Parliament to solve national problems conforming to democratic and the rule of law principles.” The 55 CNRP lawmakers-elect who boycotted the National Assembly agreed to take their rightful seats.

After the top-level meeting, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared, “It was a success. Now you can applaud.” According to CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, “We have no choice. The only suitable choice is to end the political crisis and the tense situation.”

Actually, I never doubted that the day would come when the CNRP and the CPP, each having received votes from about half the electorate, would work together to govern Cambodia. After the National Election Committee—whose members are appointed by the ruling CPP—announced results from the July 2013 legislative elections awarding 68 seats in the National Assembly to the CPP and 55 to the CNRP, disputes were inevitable. I suggested the CNRP seek a deal to control the legislative branch and leave the CPP in control of the executive. But resistance to compromise was overwhelming at that time and the pre-eminent demand was that the Prime Minister must resign.

The CNRP intensified nonviolent mass street protests and foreign diplomatic tours to compel the Premier to step down; the CPP intensified its tactics of intimidation, arrests, and killings. The divide appeared deep and unbridgeable.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, in control of all state institutions, remained in power exercising an iron-fisted rule; opposition leader Sam Rainsy, with increasing support from a population growing tired of the status quo, remained in the streets; international community members talked about liberty, justice, and human rights, but conducted business as usual with the party in power.

On July 15, 2014 peaceful protesters turned against the regime’s plain clothes thugs sent to break them up at Freedom Park, and 7 CNRP lawmakers-elect and a CNRP senior cadre were arrested for “insurrection,” handcuffed, and thrown in the infamous Prey Sar prison. Violence seemed imminent.

Four days later, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who cut short his international travel, told some 10,000 people who greeted him at Phnom Penh airport that the opposition had a choice to fight the regime or to negotiate a peaceful settlement. And Mr. Rainsy gave his verdict: “But we don’t want to fight, we don’t want our Khmer people’s blood drained.” Thus, he opened the door to the July 22 agreement. The agreement has elicited mixed reactions domestically and internationally.

Many supporters of the CNRP in the country and abroad quickly expressed their disappointment and disapproval, with some branding CNRP Sam Rainsy as a traitor to the cause, and the agreement as a betrayal. Whether the Cambodian diaspora will continue to provide financial support to the party is an open question.

I agree that the July 22 Agreement provides only a reprieve from chaos and an opportunity for the people to return to a more calm life and focus on development. It is a long road to effective implementation of the tenets of the Agreement, and obstacles are many.

Devil in the details
Had things gone as they were envisioned, the 55 CNRP lawmakers-elect would have been sworn in by the King to take their rightful seats in the National Assembly on Tuesday, July 29. But that was not the case, as Mr. Rainsy wanted first to “iron out details” in the agreement, especially regarding the “ninth member of the NEC.”

Article 2 of the Agreement stipulates that the NEC is established by the National Assembly with an absolute majority of votes; that the NEC will have 9 members, 4 from the CNRP, another 4, the CPP, and the last one, the ninth member, from a Non-Governmental-Organization, and selected by consensus of both parties. Here lies the weakest link in the agreement: The CPP can deny a consensus, and the NEC will remain as it was, a compromised tool of one party.

Deal defended
In a video posted on his Facebook page, Sam Rainsy reaffirmed that, “No other option was better than the one that we chose.” He spoke of the “tense situation” created by the CNRP-CPP standoff over the past year, including economic hardships and the daily potential for violence. He asked that judgment on the CNRP’s decision to enter into the July 22 Agreement with the CPP not be pronounced, and asked CNRP supporters to “wait until the outcome is made plain, then form your opinion on whether what we did was right or wrong.”

Mr. Rainsy said on his video that the CNRP’s decision to end the boycott and forge a deal with the CPP has as objective to “amend” Cambodia’s laws and to “reform” the NEC. With key electoral reforms implemented, Cambodia’s freedom will be better assured. However, the power to alter the NEC and the national Constitution rests with the National Assembly. If the CNRP does not join the Assembly, it cannot act on behalf of its constituents to improve the electoral system and amend the Constitution.

Mr. Rainsy affirmed that the July 22 Agreement included the release from prison of the jailed CNRP lawmakers-elect and CNRP cadre charged with insurrection. Too, the ban on peaceful assembly at Freedom Park would be canceled and the Park reopened.

In an interview with the Voice of America Khmer, Mr. Rainsy assured listeners that his and all CNRP lawmakers-elect’s “next step” is to take the fight to the National Assembly. Regarding its 55 seats in the legislature and the senior legislative positions designated to the CNRP, Rainsy said, “We did not take them quickly, as we needed to prepare . . . to ensure we could enter the fight effectively.”

“The legal way of confronting will be more effective than we have seen before because there has never been a situation like this – only two parties to confront each other in the parliament. And it’s the first time that the democrats have had the same stance, being determined together to rescue the nation,” Mr. Rainsy said on the VOA-Khmer.

At the CNRP Congress of 6,000 supporters on July 27 at Botum Park, the Congress adopted the CNRP’s seven-point political manifesto that included support for the end of the political deadlock and the 4-4-1 NEC formula, among others.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is a shrewd and cunning political operator. He was a “pagoda boy” with little formal education, but he is experienced and street smart, having learned to manage the levers of power over a 30 year tenure as leader of the nation.

Mr. Hun Sen saw the writing on the wall some time ago. He had a rude wake-up call in 1993 when he lost the UN-supervised election to Prince Ranariddh, and another in 2013 when at least half of the electorate voted for the CNRP in the July 28th legislative elections. Even with alleged election irregularities and vote fraud, the NEC announced 3.2 million votes for the CPP; and 2.9 million votes for the CNRP, a difference of 300,000 votes. The CNRP, backed by the international community, asked for an impartial investigation, but the Premier and the ruling CPP refused. Hun Sen must be a bit rattled by a year of unrelenting peaceful protests against his government. His legacy is what remains to be protected and it is Hun Sen’s desire to frame that legacy that has caused him to shift his tactics in this ongoing competition with the most single-minded opposition he has encountered. I should like to think as Mr. Rainsy does, as reported by The Cambodia Daily: “The opposition leader said that he had faith that Mr. Hun Sen would be amenable to the CNRP’s demand.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen wants his regime to be legitimate. In the high interests of the Khmer people, the CNRP agreed to end the boycott. As with any compromise, something is won and something is lost. Hun Sen gains some legitimacy; the CNRP acquires an opportunity to initiate the first steps toward substantive political change. The next moves in this chess game will be interesting to watch as we will soon know what balance will be struck going forward by the cagey Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, who must rein in his strong-willed team, in the welcome “spirit of national reconciliation and national unity,” and “based on the respect of the high national interests and the people.”


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