CPP President and acting Head of State Chea Sim left the country Tuesday morning amid a heavy police presence outside his Phnom Penh residence, neglecting to sign a much-maligned “package vote” measure to end the political deadlock.
Chea Sim’s abrupt departure left the duty to Nhiek Bun Chhay, second deputy vice president of the Senate, who finalized the package vote through a Royal decree a few hours afterward.
Fueling rumors of discontent within the CPP, the mysterious circumstances around Chea Sim’s departure—including scores of armed police surrounding his compound in the early morning hours—highlighted the turbulence that Prime Minister Hun Sen has faced in pushing toward a new coalition government with Funcinpec.
The deal’s final step required King Norodom Sihanouk to sign off on the addition to the Constitution of a “package vote” measure, which has been criticized by the opposition, legal experts and rights groups as unconstitutional.
But in a letter Saturday, the King refused to sign off on the measure, leaving it to the “conscience” of Chea Sim, who acts on the King’s behalf in his absence.
Speaking after Chea Sim’s unscheduled departure, CPP officials denied that their party president had declined to approve the agreement, saying he required medical care in Bangkok for a heart problem and high blood pressure.
CPP officials also downplayed the importance of police deployed to combat a phantom rally.
According to nearby residents, officers from Hok Lundy’s National Police were deployed on Norodom Boulevard outside the Senate compound, which includes Chea Sim’s residence, at about 2 am and stayed until mid-morning.
With muzzled attack dogs and tear gas cannons, intervention police appeared by 7:30 am to be in riot mode, though no protests or rallies appear to have been planned.
Officials gave conflicting reasons for the police deployment outside the Senate, but agreed that it was a safeguard against street violence.
According to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, authorities had information that opposition-aligned groups planned to deliver a petition to the Senate, threatening a repeat of the havoc wreaked during last year’s anti-Thai riots.
“We remember those events, and we have learned to take action,” Khieu Sopheak said. “They fight, burn public property and make disorder in society. We have to control the disorder before it happens.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said protesters planned to disrupt a meeting of the Constitutional Council—a meeting that council member Son Soubert said was never planned.
In another account, CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin said a grenade attack was planned on the Senate.
But no government official contacted Tuesday would name a specific group planning protests outside the Senate, and Oum Sarith, Chea Sim’s Cabinet chief in charge of Senate affairs, declined to say whether any activities at the Senate were planned.
Casting more doubt on those explanations, opposition leader Sam Rainsy was reportedly in Siem Reap Tuesday morning, preparing for a trip to Thailand.
He and others in opposition-aligned NGOs gave voice to rumors that the police were deployed to pressure Chea Sim into signing the package vote deal.
“I would like to praise Samdech Chea Sim for daring not to sign off on the ‘additional Constitution,’” Sam Rainsy said.
“This morning was a coup against anyone who does not want to see Prime Minister Hun Sen as prime minister,” he said.
The final approval of the package vote by Nhiek Bun Chhay, a deputy president of Funcinpec, is the latest twist to passing the controversial measure, which critics say contradicts normal procedure on electing legislative and executive leadership in separate votes.
It also violates law and protocol by calling for a show-of-hands vote, critics say.
Despite the criticism, the deal, pitched as a seven-article “additional Constitution” to bypass the legal issues of making an amendment, was passed in open votes in the Assembly and Senate.
Following the departure of Chea Sim, Khieu Kanharith said it is now unclear when the Assembly will meet to implement the package vote and install the next government. Officials had hoped for a meeting Thursday.
Hun Sen has already planned a post-deadlock meeting with
the King, Chea Sim and Prince Ranariddh. A letter from the premier posted on the King’s Web site, likely written before Tuesday’s events, proposed a meeting July 23 in Pyongyang, North Korea.
The police presence and media reports about Chea Sim’s departure caused a palpable unease in the capital, as some business owners shuttered their doors, fearing a clash between factions inside the CPP.
As police ostensibly waited for rioters outside the Senate and CPP headquarters, traffic was diverted from Norodom Boulevard to Monivong Boulevard, causing mild bottlenecks.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Luke Reynolds)