The National Assembly is scheduled to convene today and break a nearly yearlong political deadlock, despite reports that CPP President Chea Sim has been forced into temporary exile and the opposition party has retreated to Thailand.
King Norodom Sihanouk cleared the way for the long-awaited session Wednesday by authorizing Prime Minister Hun Sen as a prime minister candidate for the next term of government in today’s parliamentary election of government and Assembly positions.
According to a letter from the King distributed by CPP officials Wednesday, “the prime minister has the duty to prepare the Royal Government of Cambodia’s composition and ask the National Assembly for its approval.”
The Assembly meeting could conclude a grueling deadlock that turned tense this week when Chea Sim, a party rival of Hun Sen, was taken out of the country under heavy police escort.
His house ringed by armed officers, Chea Sim flew to Bangkok Tuesday morning with National Police Director Hok Lundy, neglecting to sign off on a legal measure to authorize a power-sharing deal reached by the premier and Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The Senate president’s abrupt departure ignited speculation that he was forced into exile for refusing to sign the so-called “package vote,” a move that would undermine Hun Sen’s sprint for a new coalition government.
Local opposition newspapers published unsubstantiated reports Wednesday that up to 40 CPP parliamentarians loyal to Chea Sim have left the country out of protest and fear. Coupled with the boycott of 24 Sam Rainsy Party members, the CPP officials’ absence would prevent the Assembly from reaching a quorum.
CPP officials denied any rift within the party, saying Chea Sim went to Thailand for medical treatment and that no party members left the country. The insistence on holding the Assembly meeting today underscores Hun Sen’s confidence in a quorum and a positive vote for the power-sharing deal, they say.
Reacting to Wednesday’s reports, Hok Lundy told reporters in Bangkok that he accompanied Chea Sim on a regular medical trip for the senior CPP leader’s heart problem. He said CPP Senators Tep Ngorn and Sim Ka had also traveled to Thailand.
Chea Sim “has not been pressured or ordered into exile, as some people have said,” Hok Lundy told Radio Free Asia, adding that Chea Sim will return to Cambodia after receiving treatment and taking “three and five days to relax.”
“People in Phnom Penh are living in peace. Even the opposition and the NGO community is living in security,” Hok Lundy said.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra confirmed that Chea Sim was in the country, along with several other Cambodian officials, according to a Deutche Presse-Agentur report from Bangkok. The report did not identify the other officials or their party affiliation.
Sam Rainsy and most of the party’s 23 other parliamentarians are also in Thailand. The party plans to boycott today’s Assembly meeting, as it did parliamentary and Senate sessions in the past week to authorize the package vote.
The Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers “are in a safe place…. Most of them have left the country so they cannot be forced to attend the [Assembly] meeting,” the opposition leader said by phone.
Meanwhile, CPP officials in Phnom Penh tried to defuse rumors that Chea Sim was forced out of the country for protesting the new power-sharing deal. Observers say Chea Sim, who heads a CPP faction known to rival Hun Sen, is angry over receiving insufficient government posts in the next mandate.
Asked about the alleged split in the party, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanarith said: “Wait until [the Assembly session] and you will see. There is no problem.”
One senior CPP official said: “Everything is on track. Nothing happened.”
They also pointed to a letter from Chea Sim posted on King Sihanouk’s Web site late Tuesday, in which he asked the King for permission to leave the country.
Today’s session will implement the controversial package vote, which Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh have pushed through the Assembly and Senate as an “additional Constitution.” The opposition party, legal experts and rights groups have said the vote’s approval has been unconstitutional in form and procedure.
The measure was finally approved Tuesday by Funcinpec’s Nhiek Bun Chhay, acting as head of state after Chea Sim left. Chea Sim was acting head of state by virtue of King Sihanouk’s stay in North Korea.
The vote is expected to end a political stalemate dating to last year’s July 27 elections, in which the CPP won a majority of parliamentary seats but not the two-thirds necessary to form a government on its own.
But the power-sharing deal, announced last month after back-channel talks between Hun Sen and the prince, has sparked a new round of criticism for more than doubling the number of Cabinet positions, inflating a government already notorious for its inefficiency and corruption.
Eighty-seven parliamentarians must attend today’s Assembly session for a quorum.