Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin said Monday that the ruling CPP’s demand that dual nationals be banned from sitting on a reformed election commission is not intended to prevent Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek from becoming the “neutral” ninth member of the new institution.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a deal on July 22 that led the opposition party’s 55 lawmakers to end their boycott of parliament in exchange for an overhaul of the CPP-led National Election Committee (NEC).
Under the deal, each party will have the right to select four members of the NEC, with the ninth tie-breaking member chosen by both. Ms. Chhiv Kek was approved for the ninth position on July 28 and the CNRP took its seats the next week.
The subsequent talks to draft the law for the new institution have been deadlocked since early October, with the CPP now demanding that NEC members not hold foreign passports. Ms. Chhiv Kek is also a French and Canadian citizen.
“It is not targeted at any individual person,” Mr. Chhin, the CPP’s lead delegate in election reform talk, said of his party’s demands after a weekly meeting Monday. “This draft law, we draft in general. We do not draft it to target on this or that persons. So please make it clear, it’s not about that.”
Mr. Chhin insisted that the ruling party still supports Ms. Chhiv Kek’s candidacy for the ninth slot on a new NEC.
“We support [her] but we don’t know she has two nationalities or whatever. Don’t make assumptions about that. It’s the wrong evaluation, we have written [the draft], without targeting this or that person. Don’t be confused,” Mr. Chhin said.
“We want single-nationals because they can prove they have Khmer citizenship and they can work without links to other areas,” he explained. “We want them to be neutral since we do not want to hear of there being any [outside] influence.”
He added that Ms. Chhiv Kek would always have the option of renouncing her foreign passports if necessary.
“We are just assuming that she will be like this or that. Sometimes, they can give it up, we don’t know,” he said.
CNRP official Kuoy Bunroeun, who has led the opposition party in the election reform talks, said that his party would not back down over its rejection of the CPP’s demands.
“We want it to be more open,” Mr. Bunroeun said after Monday’s meeting. “We know that some people, because of circumstances, are forced to have [foreign passports]. Secondly, we want those living abroad and holding other nationalities—and having the experiences and knowledge—to serve here.”
According to the July 22 deal, if the two parties are unable to come to an agreement to establish the reformed NEC, the current CPP-led NEC will continue to organize elections.
On Friday, Ms. Chhiv Kek declined to comment when asked if she would consider renouncing her foreign passports if it was required for her to join the NEC.
“[I]t is still too early to comment at this time,” Ms. Chhiv Kek said in an email.
Last week, prominent opposition official Meach Sovannara was arrested the morning after the last round of failed election reform talks, with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court imprisoning him on four-month-old charges of “insurrection.”
CNRP leaders have claimed that his imprisonment is a ploy to push them to fold to the CPP’s demands, but the opposition official’s wife said Monday that the party should not back down.
“If the imprisonment of my family is an exchange for the independence of the NEC, then I agree to have my family imprisoned,” Jamie Meach, who lives in the U.S., told a crowd of media after visiting Mr. Sovannara in Prey Sar prison. “I sacrifice everything.”
By telephone, Ms. Meach said that her jailed husband, who is also a U.S. citizen, had told her not to let the CNRP make concessions in the NEC negotiations to secure his release.
“He told me that he would not allow anyone to use him as a political hostage in exchange for something that could ruin the new NEC or for any other political issue,” Ms. Meach said.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said embassy officials visited Mr. Sovannara in prison last week and are providing him with the regular assistance given to U.S citizens.
In front of the prison Monday, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha said that he had also met with Mr. Sovannara and would heed his demands for the opposition not to fold.
“His message was that he continues demanding for justice for the nation, and he suggests to [the] party not to take the matter of his arrest to be bartered to take the negotiations backward,” the opposition leader said. “I told him that the CNRP’s position is that his arrest cannot be bartered in the talks.”
“I already advised to the [CNRP] negotiating group scheduled to meet at 3 o’clock that our negotiating stance is that we will not soften in exchange for anything,” Mr. Sokha added.
Yet he said that the opposition party would continue negotiating separately for the official’s immediate release.
“But we want a resolution as we have had in the past,” he said. “I hope Meach Sovannara will be released soon.”
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)