King’s Talks Start Today

But Rival Parties Still Worlds Apart

The leaders of Cambodia’s three major parties were scheduled to start summit talks mediated by the King in Siem Reap today, in a step toward ending weeks of post-election acrimony.

The talks are to provide some momentum and trust-building before King Norodom Sihanouk swears in new parliamentarians Thursday against the backdrop of Angkor Wat. The summit constitutes the first face-to-face meeting of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and his rival Prince Noro­dom Ranariddh since troops loyal to Hun Sen routed the prince’s forces in July 1997.

CPP officials have said talks now should focus primarily on forming a coalition government. But top Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party officials maintain that election irregularities still need to be addressed.

Not only do the meetings follow weeks of unrest on Phnom Penh streets, they also come at a time when the opposition feels angry and hamstrung by a travel ban restricting movement.

UN and Thai officials both have criticized the ban, which was supposed to have been lifted as part of a larger agreement brokered by the Thai deputy foreign minister last week. Funcinpec and Rainsy officials both have hinted that they might not attend Thursday’s opening of the As­sembly if the travel ban isn’t removed first.

Thai Ambassador Dommedej Bunnag on Monday said the government hasn’t abided by what he and other Thai officials understood the agreement to be.

Yet he expressed hopes that the summit in Siem Reap could push the process forward. “There’s no way out apart from forming the coalition government,” he said.

It’s uncertain whether any substantive coalition issues will be discussed and resolved at the summit, or whether the talks will deal mostly with trying to heal deep wounds and prepare for Thursday’s historical event. It was also unclear Monday how active a role the King would take in setting the agenda and mediating the process.

The CPP has wanted for weeks to get on with coalition talks, rather than dwelling on opposition complaints of electoral irregularities. The complaints have been dismissed by the National Election Committee and the Constitutional Council, but the opposition maintains the two government review bodies are biased toward the CPP.

In efforts to avoid further bloodshed, Funcinpec and Rainsy officials agreed to end street protests and participate in the summit and the convening of the new Assembly. But in return, the government gave assurances that elected parliamentarians would be free to travel, and be free from arrest and detention, according to the Thai officials who brokered the deal.

Hun Sen essentially made the same plea for a summit two weeks earlier, but the opposition sent lower-level officials to Siem Reap instead.

Opposition party officials said Monday the summit’s success depends on the King, but indicated that they consider election results and the travel ban two issues that must be addressed.

“We have to” raise the election issues, said Tol Lah, Funcinpec secretary-general. Sam Rainsy took a similar position Monday evening.

The election issues include the reconciliation of used and unused ballots, which could indicate cheating, and the controversial formula to allocate Assembly seats.

As far as the travel ban goes, “it’s very clear that in the negotiations we have to have an atmosphere free from pressure,” Tol Lah said. Sam Rainsy characterized the ban as coercion.

While some diplomats empathized with the opposition party’s feelings that they are being forced to negotiate, they said it might be difficult for Funcinpec especially to boycott the Assembly opening given a pledge the Prince made to the King to attend.

But the King also has criticized the travel ban.

Party officials Sunday and Monday were understandably tight-lipped about their strategy should the summit talks broach substantive coalition issues.

CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that everything is negotiable with the exception of two items: Hun Sen as first prime minister and Chea Sim as president of the National Assembly.

“It’s too early for coalition talks,” Tol Lah of Funcinpec said. “We have a lot of things to talk about before we go further. It’s a step-by-step process, but as you know we’ve shown goodwill to resolve the problems.”

Funcinpec clearly wants to avoid the disaster of the last coalition government and emerge with some real power. Diplomats have said other issues include the prince’s role in the new government and amnesties for such resistance generals as Nhiek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal.

In a statement issued Monday, the Sam Rainsy Party also said it has no plan to discuss the coalition government until there is agreement on a political program to reduce corruption, protect the environment, secure aid and trade, reform the civil service, investigate past crimes and introduce fiscal transparency.

 

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