Cheam Channy Freed; Thanks King, Hun Sen

Walking free from military prison on Monday, opposition party member Cheam Channy thanked Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni for bringing to an early end his seven-year sentence for forming a so-called illegal armed force.

“I would like to thank King Norodom Sihamoni, who granted me a pardon to offer me freedom, and I would like to express my special thanks to Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen who requested that His Majesty release me from prison,” Cheam Channy told a cheering crowd of several hundred gathered at the opposition’s headquarters following his release.

“I will continue to work to serve the people,” he said, adding that he now wants to return to his position as a lawmaker.

King Norodom Sihamoni issued a royal pardon late Sunday evening absolving Cheam Channy and releasing him from military prison, where he had been detained for just over a year. In August he was sentenced to seven years for fraud and sedition.

Although the European Union, the US State Department and various rights groups condemned Cheam Channy’s detention, Hun Sen said international pressure was not behind the government’s decision to call for his early release.

Instead, Hun Sen said at Chaktomuk Theater, where he was attending a conference on land management and urban development, the situation was resolved because “Khmer talked to Khmer.”

Calling the outcome “national reconciliation,” he added that “finally Khmer will win with Khmer solutions.”

“This is lightning policy, because there was no international pressure. We didn’t solve the problem because people asked foreigners to solve the problem,” Hun Sen said.

“His Excellency Cheam Channy today will reunite with his wife. I congratulate you,” he added.

Hun Sen also discussed opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is expected to return to Cambodia this week after a year in self-imposed exile.

Hun Sen said the opposition leader had helped the situation by apologizing for defamatory statements that led to his Dec 22 conviction in absentia to 18 months in prison.

In letters to Hun Sen and to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy said he regretted blaming Hun Sen for the 1997 grenade attack and accusing the prince of accepting bribes.

“Sam Rainsy completely admitted the accusation was wrong. What he wrote was a verdict to sentence himself. He was brave,” Hun Sen said, before urging opposition officials not to be disappointed or embarrassed by a compromise.

“Some opposition party leaders are not happy with Sam Rainsy’s behavior, as if he had taken off his trousers and walked naked in the middle of Phnom Penh,” Hun Sen said. “Those who criticize the leader must understand that if you break something, you must pay a refund. But this compromise will allow Sam Rainsy to return and [assume his] seat at the National Assembly.”

He added that an opposition party plays a crucial role in Cambodian democracy and said he hoped Sam Rainsy would soon return.

In a telephone interview from Paris, Sam Rainsy said he would return on Thursday or Friday at the latest.

“The situation in Cambodia has changed. We have to adjust to the new situation,” Sam Rainsy said. “Hun Sen has made a step towards me and I have made a step towards him.”

He would not discuss the 1997 grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh that left at least a dozen people dead and more than 120 injured.

“I want to put aside those problems. I have set priorities,” he said. “I look forward. I look into the future.” Asked whether he had sold out, Sam Rainsy laughed and said “not at all.”

He would not say whether he would oppose Hun Sen in the 2008 national election, but said he would seek elected office.

Opposition party Acting Secretary-General Meng Rita said some party members were displeased by the developments.

“There are some extremists. They are concerned that we are softening our stance. They wanted to stand firm,” he said.

But for the most part, party members met Cheam Channy’s release and Sam Rainsy’s upcoming return with jubilation.

Watching Cheam Channy’s car leave party headquarters on Monday, Keo Yun, a councilor for Meanchey district’s Nirot commune, said it felt as if the party’s power had been renewed.

“I am excited to see that Khmer compromised with Khmer,” he said. “I don’t think the party will be weak in the future. When Sam Rainsy returns, he will lead a strong party.”

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