Cambodia’s leader should channel the virtuous spirit of the Pchum Ben religious holiday and release 25 jailed activists and rights workers, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha said on Tuesday, an act a CPP spokesman rejected as “impossible.”
Mr. Sokha’s remarks to the families of the activists marked the opposition party’s latest attempt to forge a more conciliatory dialogue with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who spoke last week of a temporary “cease-fire” with the CNRP over the jailings of at least 20 government critics on charges widely believed to be political.
Mr. Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison earlier this month in a case involving an alleged mistress but has refused to leave the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters since May, warning of mass protests if the government attempts to arrest him.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Sokha took a more conciliatory tone, building on a Sunday Facebook post urging supporters to avoid “rude words” that might inflame political tensions.
“On this day of Pchum Ben we reflect on virtues,” Mr. Sokha told the family members and CNRP officials on Tuesday. “Leaders have to have compassion, kindness, empathy and impartiality.”
The acting opposition leader inveighed on the spirits of past Khmer kings and patriots to animate current leaders with “the four perfect virtues in order to make them grant compassion to those who are behind bars.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the plea only indicated that Mr. Sokha’s “back is against the wall.”
“So he wants a few prisoners who are his people to be released,” Mr. Eysan said on Tuesday. “What about the other tens of thousands of prisoners in the provinces? He did not request their release. This shows that he only thinks about the benefit of his people and his party.”
Although Mr. Hun Sen has a record of pardoning prisoners in politically-motivated cases, Mr. Eysan reiterated the government’s position that it would not negotiate with someone Cambodia’s courts had branded a criminal.
“How can a political party solve the court’s conflict? It is impossible,” Mr. Eysan claimed.
Paul Chambers, a professor of international relations at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University, said it would be “extremely surprising” if Hun Sen acquiesced to the CNRP.
“The only leverage that CNRP might have is to call off its calls for demonstrations against Hun Sen,” Mr. Chambers wrote in an email on Tuesday. “Perhaps also if Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy knuckled under to Hun Sen and agreed to cooperate with CPP, then maybe they would gain miniscule leverage.”
But CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath held out hope, saying that Pchum Ben was a “time to contemplate and reflect on forgiveness.”
“The government might consider that we’ve been softer and we have been really wanting to hold negotiations to bring down tensions to normalize our politics,” he said.