A grenade explodes in the morning. Authorities vow to arrest opposition leaders. Police fire on demonstrators, killing at least one. And talks to bring an end to the political crisis fail.
Monday marked the most intense day yet in the six uneasy weeks since the election, as all sides searched in vain for a way out—or at least for the upper hand.
The ruling CPP and the opposition Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy parties now seem to be caught up in a dangerous game of “chicken,” in which they hurtle towards each other, each counting on the other swerving away. And analysts say it is the Cambodian people who may be the ones caught in the collision.
So far, King Norodom Sihanouk has been unable to convince the two sides to stop the confrontation, even as it became bloody. Weekend talks in Siem Reap failed without so much as a counter offer from either camp.
The opposition Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy parties wanted to talk about their demands for further investigation into election fraud and adoption of an earlier seat-allocation formula. But the National Election Commission, Constitutional Council and the CPP insisted that the time for talking about the election is over and only coalition talks remain.
“They always have the same line. They repeat the same script they had before,” complained Funcinpec negotiator Pok Than.
The CPP says the opposition is to blame for more instability if they continue their stubborn stance to block formation of the new government and boycott the new National Assembly.
“If they two political parties would not come to the opening of the National Assembly, they would not only betray the will of the people, but also the will of the King,” Second Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday.
Analysts say the major parties are still more interested in increasing their bargaining position than in serious negotiations.
“Anything could happen in this sort of political environment,” said Kao Kim Hourn, head of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“If everybody sticks to their own position, there can be no progress,” Kao Kim Hourn said. “I think there has to be compromise….I think everyone has to sacrifice in the end.”
But there was no evidence of a self-sacrificing attitude from either side Monday.
Hun Sen’s announcement that the arrest of opposition leaders is imminent, following a grenade explosion at his Phnom Penh home, is one way of putting on pressure on the opposition.
“What Hun Sen really wants is the opposition to stop street demonstrations. I don’t know if he will go ahead with arrests,” one government source said. “He really wants the King to force Ranariddh into a coalition with the CPP and to isolate Sam Rainsy as much as possible.”
In fact, the arrest of prominent opposition leaders could prove to be a problem for the international community and for future foreign aid. But the threat of arrests could be enough to convince Funcinpec to fold, or so the theory goes.
The CPP is also talking of convening the new National Assembly without the opposition, which has vowed to boycott. The CPP has claimed the usual 70 percent quorum needed for an Assembly meeting doesn’t apply to the opening session, according to a loophole in the parliament’s internal regulations.
But Kao Kim Hourn said that even if the CPP succeeds in opening the new Assembly, the tactic isn’t really a solution because the CPP still can’t form a government without a confirmation vote even if the parliament is seated.
“I think this reflects the frustration and anxiety of the current political crisis,” Kao Kim Hourn said. “In my view it is another bargaining chip….They tell the opposition, ‘Either you join us or we go it alone.’”
The opposition, on the other hand, appeared late Monday night about to lose one of its biggest bargaining chips as the two-week-long demonstrations it had organized were scheduled to be broken up by police at midnight.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh on Monday appealed to the King not to abdicate, as he has warned he might, because he is the “last hope” for a solution.
The prince last week called on his father to convince the CPP to meet another opposition demand: that the ruling party dump Hun Sen as its prime-ministerial candidate.
But the King has so far played only the role of mediator, refusing to apply pressure to either side, according to those in the meetings. And he has even suggested that the UN, not he, should broker a solution to the crisis, since the present government was born of the 1993 UN-sponsored elections.
Kao Kim Hourn said it is time for the international community to lean on both sides to compromise before things get worse.
“The King has tried very hard, but I don’t think he can muster the kind of influence he had in 1993. That’s why he keeps referring perhaps to intervention by the UN,” he said. “I think the Friends of Cambodia should have an emergency meeting and develop a position.
“My worst fear is violence. Major violence. I hope that will never happen in this country again. But of course we cannot underestimate the potential and the likelihood that it will happen in a situation like this.”