Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Tuesday abruptly canceled a meeting with the opposition party set for next week following surprise orders from Prime Minister Hun Sen to strip the CNRP of its official “minority group” status in the National Assembly.
Mr. Kheng, the majority leader in the Assembly for the ruling CPP, had sent CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha a letter on Monday agreeing to meet on January 25 for what the opposition hoped would include talks to release five current and former rights workers jailed over charges it claims are politically motivated.
That same day, however, Mr. Hun Sen brought those plans to a grinding halt in an interview with government mouthpiece Fresh News on his way to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Accusing the CNRP of trying to misuse the meeting to secure the prisoners’ release, the prime minister demanded that the Assembly’s internal rules be amended, effectively erasing the existing formal framework for political negotiations.
Mr. Kheng’s cabinet duly sent the opposition a second letter on Tuesday, also initially published by Fresh News, canceling next week’s meeting without explanation and without offering a new date.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, Mr. Kheng’s cabinet chief who signed the two letters, said on Tuesday the cancellation was prompted by the prime minister’s comments.
“The first letter was sent before [Mr. Hun Sen’s] comments. Then we decided to send another letter postponing the meeting,” he said. “We’re not sure when it will be. Maybe next year.”
“Now the National Assembly will amend Article 48 of the internal rules about the minority and majority group,” he added. “So we don’t need to negotiate anything. It’s a waste of time.”
With its control of a majority of National Assembly seats, the CPP has the votes to amend the rules on it own.
The CNRP convinced the CPP to create official majority and minority groups in 2014 in hopes of institutionalizing a two-party system in the face of what it considered Cambodia’s de facto one-party rule.
CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath said on Tuesday that those changes had set up a framework for formal negotiations, but added that they had managed to resolve past disputes without it and could still do so again.
“Before we had no minority and majority groups, but we were still able to solve many political issues,” he said. “We still hope that we can solve this issue together.”
Cham Bunthet, a political analyst and adviser to the Grassroots Democracy Party, said the CNRP had achieved nothing by becoming the official opposition.
“The CPP can do whatever they want to do,” he said. “It is one-party rule, period—even if there is an opposition there. The CPP does not care about that.”
Mr. Bunthet said informal channels for the CNRP and CPP to negotiate behind the scenes would continue to open and close just as they always had.
“The backchannel…it still works,” he said. “But it always benefits the ruling party.”
The five prisoners include four current members of rights group Adhoc and its former head of legal aid, now the deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee. They were arrested over accusations that they bribed a woman to deny having an affair with Mr. Sokha.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)