SIEM REAP CITY – The last time opposition leader Sam Rainsy joined such a crowd in this town, he chided Prime Minister Hun Sen for being “weaker than a female” for not calling a snap election amid mass anti-government protests, as Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra had done days earlier.
Near the climax of the CNRP’s campaign in late 2013 to force a new election, the opposition leader led supporters through Siem Reap’s streets demanding that Mr. Hun Sen step down.
On Tuesday, however, with the post-election crisis replaced by a so-called “culture of dialogue” between the opposition and government, Mr. Rainsy appeared here alongside Mr. Hun Sen for the annual Khmer New Year festival, organized by the youth wing of the ruling CPP.
With the 12th-century Bayon Temple as their backdrop, and an assortment of senior CPP ministers on stage, Mr. Hun Sen said the opposition leader’s presence behind him for his opening speech of the Angkor Sankranta festival was a landmark event for Cambodia.
“Our country has reached a new point with the presence of His Excellency Sam Rainsy…on stage today; the culture of dialogue has happened in Cambodia and replaced the culture of conflict and killing each other,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
The prime minister said he had always made an effort to promote dialogue before the use of force, and that talks between the CPP and CNRP following the disputed July 2013 national election showed Mr. Rainsy’s value.
“Half my life, I have worked on peace negotiations more than war,” the prime minister told the audience. “Recently, I met a good partner: His Excellency Sam Rainsy.”
The prime minister rejected the notion that Mr. Rainsy was an opposition leader.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘opposition.’ I want to use ‘party in government’ and ‘party out of government’—these are sweeter words,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “We must stay together because, at the very least, we have the same Cambodian blood.”
Behind Mr. Hun Sen, both Mr. Rainsy and his wife, CNRP lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, swapped jokes with CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who were seated beside them.
In a jovial mood, Mr. Hun Sen made light of the word “Yuon,” a term for Vietnamese that can be derogatory and which Mr. Rainsy has frequently used in verbal attacks on Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP over the years.
The word was recently used by irate Facebook users to describe the style of a red and yellow gateway that had been erected near Angkor Wat for the New Year festival, which fell victim to arson last week.
The prime minister, dressed in a bright-pink traditional suit, said he was concerned about the reddish hue of his clothes.
“In fact, this morning I was wearing a shirt similar to [Defense Minister] Tea Banh, but to make my wife satisfied, I took off those blue clothes,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“The reason I wanted to dress in blue was to avoid them calling me ‘Yuon,’ because the gate that was made was called Yuon, and therefore today monks are Yuon and my wife is Yuon…and Sam Rainsy is nearly Yuon,” he said, turning to a laughing Mr. Rainsy, dressed in a maroon suit.
“When will Cambodians and our youth understand? Sometimes the Royal Palace requires us to dress in yellow, therefore the Yuon are all over the Royal Palace,” he joked.
Mr. Rainsy did not speak on stage and could not be reached by telephone Tuesday.
After Mr. Hun Sen’s speech, which lasted about two hours, the prime minister and opposition leader toured a series of Cambodian cultural exhibits set up near the Angkor Thom complex for the festival.
Watching theatrical performances and inspecting handicraft stalls, Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy walked the loop for about half an hour, remarking on the various exhibits to each other in an apparent display of solidarity.
Along with the other ministers present, the pair was then ferried in electric cars to near the Terrace of the Elephants, where a 4-ton sticky rice cake—which on Monday won a Guinness World Record for its size—was waiting.
Slicing into the cake with a sword, the leaders took the first bites of the cake before sharing it around the stage.
Mr. Rainsy and Ms. Saumura then departed with the clique of ruling party ministers, leaving the afternoon tug-of-war and rice-cake eating contests for the enjoyment of the thousands of youth who turned out for the holiday festivities.
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