The day after pledging to end its monthslong National Assembly boycott, the opposition CNRP changed course yesterday, skipping the morning session of parliament due to what it said were threats related to protests in Australia.
As opposition lawmakers held a news conference at the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters explaining that rumors of potential violence had caused a change in plans, Prime Minister Hun Sen posted a message to his Facebook page shrugging off the continued boycott.
“Although the rooster doesn’t crow, the sun still shines because it is not a hostage of any group,” Mr. Hun Sen wrote in a message along with a selfie of himself sitting in parliament.
In a separate message, he said that the international community —whose recent criticism of human rights abuses have been roundly rejected by the government—would be able to see which party was preventing a return to normalcy.
“At this time, embassy officials can see clearly about the behavior and activities of opposition party lawmakers,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
However, CNRP lawmakers said that rumors of possible retaliation for protests in Melbourne against Hun Manet, the prime minister’s eldest son, led them to reverse their plan to return to parliament after more than four months away.
“We saw the political situation was good so we could attend the National Assembly,” opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said during the news conference.
“But then we got last-minute information about a rumor, which we trusted, threatening lawmakers. That is why we called together CNRP lawmakers and decided not to attend the meeting,” he said.
Mr. Sovann declined to elaborate on the threat or where it came from.
Senior CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the party had nothing to do with the protest against Lieutenant General Manet, who is visiting Cambodian communities in Australia.
“We, the CNRP, want to clarify that the announcement of a demonstration in Melbourne, if it’s true, we are not involved with it,” he said. “Please don’t take any activity and accuse the CNRP of being involved.”
Mr. Chhay said the party would consider the political situation and the agenda of future National Assembly sessions in deciding whether to end its boycott.
“We have seen two of our lawmakers attacked and almost die,” he said of the brutal beatings of two CNRP lawmakers in October. “This was not a plan not to attend the meeting. We were threatened, so we do not want something like that to happen again.”
As they were leaving the National Assembly compound on October 26 last year, CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea were dragged out of their cars and kicked and stomped on by a group of men who had been taking part in a CPP-aligned protest.
Mr. Hun Sen, who had warned of the demonstration in response to protests against him during a trip to Paris, quickly distanced himself from the beatings. However, the three men arrested over the beating turned out to be members of his personal bodyguard unit.
During their trial, the three soldiers refused to answer questions about their superiors, and judges prevented lawyers from pressing the issue, leading many to speculate about a cover-up. The defendants, described as scapegoats by the CNRP, were each sentenced to a year in prison.
The opposition party’s current boycott of parliament began in late May in response to an attempt by police to arrest deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, who has since been living inside the party’s headquarters. Facing five months in prison over what is widely seen as a politically motivated conviction, Mr. Sokha briefly left the office building on Wednesday to register to vote, but was back within an hour.
The CNRP’s announcement on Thursday that its boycott was finished came despite pledges by the opposition that it would only return to parliament if the legal immunity of its lawmakers was respected.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile to avoid a two-year prison term, said last month that the boycott would only end when there was a “comprehensive solution to the current political crisis.” This week, he said he would leave it up to his colleagues in Phnom Penh to decide whether the time was right to return.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said yesterday that he did not believe the CNRP’s claims that they sat out Friday’s session due to safety concerns.
“I think that they should not use the excuse that there is someone attempting to threaten their safety—it is not true,” he said. “This is just their excuse. They don’t want to join the meeting.”
Mr. Eysan said the CNRP often complained that the country was under one-party rule, but had the option of returning to parliament at any time.
“CNRP lawmakers should not use the National Assembly as a hostage,” he said.
The 67 ruling party lawmakers in attendance passed a new law on health professionals meant to raise the quality of medical care and increase accountability among medical workers. They also passed several laws relating to Asean and approved another term for the country’s auditor-general.