Events have made clear that neither Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party, despite their control over state institutions and the national wealth, nor Mr. Sam Rainsy and his opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, despite increasing popular support, has sufficient leverage to finesse the other.
My last article in this space, “A compromise based on the high national interests and the people,” dealt with the July 22 Agreement, signed by leaders of both parties, proclaiming”an end” to a year-long political deadlock. The Premier sought to “legitimize” his government by bringing to the National Assembly the 55 boycotting members elected from the CNRP. Mr. Sam Rainsy concluded that he and his party had more to gain by bringing their opposition to the Assembly floor. The Agreement provides Cambodia and her people with a reprieve from chaos and an opportunity to focus on economic development issues.
But, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” The road to implementing the Agreement is long and obstacles are many, starting with Charet Khmer, including the Khmer cultural propensity of A’thmarAnh, of favoring one’s own well-being to the detriment of collaboration. “National reconciliation and national unity” require a spirit of compromise and the deferral of one’s immediate interests, concepts not embedded in the Khmer ethos. Khmer leaders face this hurdle among many others on the road to progressive change.
I remain mystified that is has taken a year of deadlock, of lives lost and of diminished national economic productivity to conclude on the one hand that the opposition cannot be eliminated and on the other that mass street protests are insufficient to force the Premier’s resignation; that no signatory government of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement will initiate the proper implementation of the Accords; that until CNRP leaders present themselves as a credible alternative, world community members are likely to deal with “the devil” they know…
Right words, good intents
On August 8, the 55 CNRP lawmakers-elect took their seats in the National Assembly despite endless pronouncements that they “would never” do so without the guarantee of a new election. As such, CNRP leaders have accepted to become a part of a (CPP) government they had branded as illegitimate. CNRP lawmakers – who collectivelyreceived votes from at least half of the electorate – now have a moral responsibility to right what they see as contributing to that illegitimacy. They have to work with the 68 CPP lawmakers to reform theNational Election Committee,amend the National Assembly’s internal regulations, and the Constitution.
In welcoming the 55 CNRP lawmakers, Premier Hun Sen urged “all MPs to increase the culture of dialogues in order to work together to serve the nation.” CNRP leader Sam Rainsy replied, “This is the opening of a new historic chapter in Cambodia. We will work together to defend territorial integrity and to build prosperity for the nation,” and declared, “We should not work against each other as enemies but as partners who have come together in good faith to find long lasting solutions for a just, fair and sustainable development. Let us leave behind the dark pages of the past.”
A hiccup or a symptom?
On Aug 26, lawmakers from both parties voted overwhelmingly for CNRP Vice PresidentKemSokhaas first vice president of the 123-member (68 CPP and 55 CNRP lawmakers) National Assembly, conforming to the July 22 Agreement. With CPP lawmaker Kong Sam Ol absent on a trip to China with King Sihamoni, 116 lawmakers voted for Mr. Sokha, four voted against, and two abstained.
In an amusing bit of theater indicating that not everyone “got the memo” on reconciliation, Mr. Sokha correctly moved to take the seat of the first vice president, to the right of Assembly president HengSamrin, but was startled by a loud objection from the outgoing First VP, NguonNhel, who rushed to take the seat himself, rather than relinquish it. Premier Hun Sen was obliged to step in to compel CPP member Nhel to take another chair – “Please, Excellency NguonNhel, move over there!”
Was the comedy staged for political purposes, or are members of the CPP not enthralled with this recent political rapprochement?
Chinese news agency Xinhua reported, following the vote on Mr. Sokha, that the latter “vowed to promote the culture of dialogues” between the CNRP and the CPP “for the sake of the country and people,” and proposed top leaders of both parties “meet regularly, possibly every three months.”Maybe there is hope.
No dull moment
On thefollowing day, Aug. 27, two outspoken CNRP nominees to the chairmanships of the Commission on Public Affairs, Social Work and Women’s Affairs, Ms. Mu Sochua, and of the Investigation and Anti-corruption Commission, Mr. YimSovann,failed to be confirmed by the National Assembly in a secret vote.
Ms. Sochua received 56 votes for, 63 against, and three abstentions; Mr. Sovann, 56 votes for, 62 votes against, three abstentions, and one vote nullified. CPP lawmaker Kong Sam Ol was abroad.Yet, one week earlier, Prime Minister Hun Sen had given public assurances that CPP lawmakers would vote for CNRP nominees conforming to the July 22 Agreement.
Assuming all 55 CNRP lawmakers voted along party lines, it appears that only one CPP lawmaker voted for Ms. Sochua and Mr. Sovann. A senior CPP lawmaker quickly advised not to be so certain that all CNRP lawmakers had voted for their party’s nominees – perhaps seeking to foment insecurity among the CNRP members.
While Mr. Rainsy questioned the CPP’s adherence to the spirit of the July 22 Agreement, he wasunperturbedand suggested, “There will be an appropriate solution soon.” It was the Premier who declined to answer reporters’ questions.
By the end of the day’s session, 45 CNRP lawmakers had been voted to the 10 commissions. Soon, commission members will vote on their respective commission chairs and vice chairs. The CNRP will also take six of the 13 positions on the National Assembly’s standing committee that sets the Assemblyagenda and oversees the body’s internal rules.
Perhaps much needed political maturity was manifesting itself at a time when “hell” could have broken loose. The Aug 28 Cambodia Daily reported, state-run TVK broadcasts “showed an unfazed Mr. Hun Sen and National Assembly President HengSamrin at times conferring between votes with Mr. Sam Rainsy and CNRP Vice President KemSokha, who also showed little emotion as the events played out.”
The four conferees quickly moved that CNRP members Ms. KeoSovannaroth, wife of Mr. Sovann, and Mr. Ho Vann, both Assembly approved commission members, replace Ms. Sochua and Mr. Sovann as chairs of the respective commissions, though each remains one member short.
While some CNRP diehardscried foul, Ms. Sochua confirmed the temporary nature of the replacements as necessary for the National Assembly’s permanent standing committee to function; that the Assembly will vote first on her and Mr. Sovann as commission members; then members of each of the two commissions will vote on its commission chairperson. The CNRP made clear it wants Ms. Sochua and Mr. Sovann to head the commissions to which they were appointed. Mr. Hun Sen’s sincerity will be tested.
Ms. Sochua told The Cambodia Daily, “We want to move forward and we want to avoid conflict as much as possible, and we don’t want to delay. What is most important is reform of the NEC, reform of the judiciary, and all these big things that matter.”
I was encouraged to see political pragmatism emerge as ruling and opposition leaders dealt with the seat fight and the Assembly’s rejection of CNRP nominees. I don’t expect the Premier to abandon his MachivellianAsian Sam Kokmaneuvers against the CNRP. But I trust the Premier’s desire and ability to do what is right to leave a legacy for the younger generation. He is not blind to the overwhelming numbers of people, even in his own party, who want change. I hope members of the CNRP also will continue to be measured in their discourse and focused on their goals.
Neither party should be swayed byinflexible and intransigent notables and supporters who are blinded by “we-they” perspectives and obsessed with denial and blame.Read about them in Charet Khmer (Khmer personality traits), by the late Boun Chan Mol, but don’t let them thwart the progress that is on our doorstep.
For a better Cambodia, Khmer democrats need to recallBuddha’s teaching and guiding principles: Do good, avoid evil, purify the mind. CNRP lawmakers must devote tireless efforts to seek reforms and report back to the people and to international observers. The people will hold those who thwart progress accountable at the polls. No government can last without the support of the governed.
The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.
About the Author:
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.