n a session lasting about 20 minutes, CPP parliamentary dean, Chea Soth, officially opened the third term of the National Assembly Monday morning.
The meeting, attended by most of the 123 elected parliamentarians and several foreign diplomats, consisted of only a few opening remarks and a recital of the list of lawmakers’ names by Chea Soth.
“It was one of the shortest meetings I have ever attended,” opposition leader Sam Rainsy told reporters outside the Assembly.
“There was only one shorter than this—the day they expelled me from the National Assembly,” he said, referring to the day in 1995 he was stripped of his title as Funcinpec’s minister of finance.
Although the lawmakers were sworn into parliament in a ceremony at the Royal Palace on Oct 4, Monday’s session was the first time representatives from all three parties have met at the Assembly since the July 27 general election.
An earlier ceremony at the Assembly was convened by CPP parliamentarians Sept 27, but it was boycotted by Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party officials.
After reading the list of 123 names, Chea Soth announced the lawmakers were “legitimized.” He added that the Assembly would issue notices for the next parliamentary session before he dismissed the congregation. He did not specify when the next session would be.
Though Monday’s meeting confirmed their parliamentary immunity, it was still unclear if and when the new lawmakers would start getting paid.
Last week, several parliamentarians said they felt their personal finances strained, since none of the elected members have been paid in more than two months.
CPP Finance Minister Keat Chhon on Monday declined to comment about the lawmakers’ salaries. But, he assured reporters the country’s revenues were adequate to allow government institutions to function normally while the deadlock over the Assembly leadership and formation of the new government continues.
“This present government can continue as normal until the coming government replaces it,” he said.
Notably absent from the session was Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who has been away from the country for more than a month. Funcinpec officials have said their president is in France and have not disclosed when he will return.
Prince Ranariddh’s daughter, Princess Norodom Rattana Devi, who was voted into the Assembly as a first-time parliamentarian for Funcinpec, also did not attend the session.
Meanwhile, returning to parliament for his first time in eight years was a smiling Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Funcinpec’s secretary-general.
Prince Sirivudh was tossed from the Assembly in 1995, when he was Funcinpec’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy-Prime Minister, and went into exile for more than three years over charges of conspiring to kill Prime Minister Hun Sen. He returned to the country in 1999 after being granted amnesty from his half-brother King Norodom Sihanouk.
“Now its 2003, I’ve come back to the National Assembly. I think it’s a great success for democrats and their struggle,” he said.
He did not mention the recent criticism he’s faced from the King and Hun Sen for allegedly breaking a promise never to return to politics.
While speaking to reporters, Prince Sirivudh also expressed satisfaction over the solidarity of Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party’s Alliance of Democrats.
“Although [the meeting was] a short one, we are still united,” he said.
Despite the CPP’s assurances to the contrary, Alliance officials had said they were concerned the CPP would reintroduce the idea of a “package deal” at Monday’s session, which would require parliamentarians to simultaneously vote on the Assembly leadership and government positions.
The three parties have not yet resolved the nominations for those positions, nor have agreed upon legislative and government reforms.
One Asian ambassador who attended Monday’s session said the meeting, though brief, was a positive step in the political process.
“This probably would, to a large extent, satisfy legal and administrative requirements” for the Assembly, the ambassador said. “After this process, Chea Soth can call another meeting anytime. The next stage is now to negotiate.”
Hours after the session, CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum issued a statement, inviting Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party to attend a task force meeting on the formation of the Assembly at the Royal Palace Wednesday morning.
Funcinpec issued a reply, accepting the invitation, while Son Chhay, a chief negotiator and parliamentarian for the Sam Rainsy Party, said members of his party would attend.
Son Chhay said King Sihanouk would not preside over Wednesday’s meeting. The three parties have not yet held official negotiations without the King’s presence.