Prime Minister Hun Sen announced through a government mouthpiece on Monday that he intends to rewrite the National Assembly’s internal rules so that there will be no mechanism to hold formal political discussions with the opposition party.
The move to alter Article 48 of the Assembly’s internal rules, which the parties originally agreed to during negotiations after the 2013 election, would strip the CNRP of its parliamentary standing as the “minority group,” strip acting CNRP President Kem Sokha of his title of “minority leader” and eliminate the framework for political negotiations.
“If the mechanism that was just set up through new Article 48 (III) makes it difficult to work, including the attempts to use it for negotiating for the release of prisoners involving judicial power, we have to amend the new Article 48 (III) and return to using Article 48 (II) of internal regulation of the National Assembly,” Mr. Hun Sen was quoted as saying in an exclusive interview with the CPP-aligned website FreshNews.
Article 48 (II) made no mention of a minority group, currently defined as the nongoverning party with the most seats in the National Assembly, instead saying that a group of 10 lawmakers are able to come together to raise an issue during a plenary session of parliament.
“Doing like this is quick to end the issue because no agendas of a meeting needs to be set up, because this mechanism disappears through an already made amendment,” Mr. Hun Sen was quoted as saying, reportedly from Zurich where he landed on the way to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the message was clear: there will be no negotiations between the CPP and CNRP. Mr. Sokha and Interior Minister Sar Kheng were in the process of arranging a discussion, but had yet to set a date.
“Previously, we were discussing the agendas between each other, but now Samdech [Mr. Hun Sen] said if it is extremely difficult, please close it. It will finish and there won’t be complicated issues anymore,” Mr. Eysan said.
“Don’t let it get more complicated,” he added. “The CPP has provided a grand concession to amend the Assembly’s internal regulation to create a minority group and leaders of parliamentary groups, but they [the CNRP] still cause trouble.”
Amending a law requires only a simple majority vote in parliament, meaning the CPP can make the change with or without CNRP approval.
In proposed agendas for discussion, which were exchanged over the weekend, Mr. Sokha said the CNRP would like to discuss an amendment to the election law that would allow Cambodians to vote from overseas, and more generally the political situation ahead of commune elections in June. The opposition party indicated that the latter topic might include discussions of rights workers and an election official jailed over a scandal involving Mr. Sokha.
Mr. Sokha was pardoned from a related five-month prison sentence early last month, and within weeks moved into the minority leader position, replacing opposition leader Sam Rainsy as the official dialogue partner for discussions with the prime minister.
However, what appeared to be a restoration of the “culture of dialogue” between the parties—Mr. Sokha met with both Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Kheng on December 7—quickly broke down after the acting CNRP president allegedly refused to sign a letter drafted by the CPP that would have pledged to kick out members of the party who claimed that Mr. Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, was in fact the child of first lady Bun Rany and a Vietnamese general.
The letter was seen as offering a pretext to kick out Mr. Rainsy, who claimed that the CPP had already arranged for opposition party members to make the move to oust him.
The CPP has denied the claims, though Mr. Hun Sen’s sudden willingness to meet with Mr. Sokha, whom months earlier he threatened to “imprison forever,” was widely seen as part of a campaign to split the CNRP’s leadership.
Coming out of their meeting late last year, the CNRP said the CPP had agreed to secure the release of four officers from rights group Adhoc and a senior election official—all imprisoned for allegedly bribing Mr. Sokha’s mistress to deny an affair—by the end of last month.
Last week, the CPP said that constant heckling from Mr. Rainsy, who is exiled and living in France, was undermining efforts to create a political atmosphere conducive to dialogue.
Mr. Rainsy said on Monday that “Hun Sen’s zigzagging moves reflect his disarray following his many failures to divide the opposition CNRP.”
The opposition leader said it was in fact his idea to officially appoint a “leader of a shadow cabinet,” which became the minority leader, and that Mr. Hun Sen’s repeated efforts to use the position to split him and Mr. Sokha had failed.
“Hence Hun Sen’s disarray leading to his decision to simply suppress that minority leader position altogether,” he said.
“For me the minority leader position is important in that its creation represents an institutionalization of the opposition in a country like Cambodia where a one-party system had been the norm for a long time and the opposition could be any time subject to elimination,” he added.
“Hun Sen’s latest decision is therefore another serious setback for democracy in Cambodia.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)