With Eight in Prison, Parties Set to Resume Talks

With at least eight opposition officials facing controversial charges of “leading an insurrection,” opposition leader Sam Rainsy is set to meet face-to-face with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday morning for the first time since September in what he has described as “final talks” to end the political crisis.

The opposition leader’s CNRP has been boycotting the 55 parliamentary seats that it won in last year’s July 28 national election, claiming that electoral fraud orchestrated by the ruling CPP robbed it of an outright victory.

Beginning last year, the CNRP led months of anti-government demonstrations in Phnom Penh that were brutally suppressed in January by government forces. The opposition has since turned its focus to technical talks with the CPP over electoral reform.

Prum Sokha, an Interior Ministry secretary of state who has led the ruling party in those talks, said this morning’s meeting would be for party leaders to come together in an effort to put the finishing touches on existing agreements.

“It will be the top three leaders of our party,” Mr. Sokha said, listing Mr. Hun Sen, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum as the CPP’s lead negotiating team.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the opposition’s negotiating team would be headed by Mr. Rainsy, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha and CNRP standing committee chairman Pol Ham.

Both delegations will be joined by an additional five members from each party.

Mr. Rainsy said he hoped Mr. Hun Sen would free the eight opposition officials imprisoned last week on charges of insurrection and incitement to commit a felony as a token of goodwill before the talks.

Lawmakers-elect Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavrin, Ho Vann, Real Camerin, Nuth Rumduol and Long Ry, as well as party activist Oeur Narith, were sent to prison after a violent brawl broke out last Tuesday with opposition protesters brutally beating a number of Daun Penh district security guards.

“As of now, there are no such assurances,” Mr. Rainsy said, referring to the release of opposition officials. “I only hope that the government would make this gesture before the beginning of the talks tomorrow because, as it is written in the joint statement, the two parties want to end the political tensions.”

Sam Sokong, a lawyer on the defense team for the group of eight, said last night he had been told Investigating Judge Keo Mony will visit the group this morning for further questioning, but said there was no indication yet that they will be released.

Mr. Rainsy declined to comment on the content of Tuesday’s meeting, saying he would not “expose our position” before talks.

In a post to Facebook on Sunday, however, Mr. Rainsy said Tuesday’s talks would take place on the basis of a new and independent electoral commission, commune elections in February 2017 and a national election in February 2018 instead of July 2018.

The concession marked a stark departure from the CNRP’s previous demands, which began in December with calls for an immediate revote and then withered to demands for a new election in January 2016, and then to the middle of 2017.

In April, a phone conversation between Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy had appeared to almost end the deadlock but the talks broke down when the CNRP president would not accept a February 2018 election.

With the CNRP now apparently accepting Mr. Hun Sen’s date, the remaining stumbling block is the opposition’s demands to create an independent electoral commission enshrined in the Constitution.

The present commission, the National Election Committee (NEC), is dominated by the CPP and has repeatedly been criticized by independent election monitors for its lack of neutrality.

Mr. Sovann, the CNRP spokesman, said his party will introduce at Tuesday’s meeting a new formula to select members onto a new commission.

“It’s three-three-three,” Mr. Sovann explained. “Three members from the CPP, three from the CNRP and three from civil society, of whom the CNRP will propose one member, the CPP will propose one and one will be contentious.”

The spokesman, who said the model had been given to the CPP for review already, said the “contentious” member would be selected by agreement of the two parties but would not elaborate.

The CNRP had been demanding that each member on the nine-member body be selected by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly, but the CPP had repeatedly rejected the model.

Mr. Sokha of the CPP confirmed the CPP delegation was considering the new proposal and had not yet come to a decision.

“This is just a proposal of a new formula,” Mr. Sokha said.

“For now, the agenda [for talks] is just based on the draft of the agreement between the two parties after the talks between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy on April 9 this year.”

CPP spokesman Cheam Yeap, who has also led the CPP in past talks, said the proposal could be adopted if the prime minister can be convinced.

“The three, three and three method…will be put on the table, but only the top leaders can make a decision,” Mr. Yeap said.

“We need to think about the proportion of seats in the National Assembly,” Mr. Yeap added. “The CPP won 68 National Assembly seats, which is equal to 55 percent, while the CNRP won 55 parliamentary seats, which contributes to 45 percent.”

Mr. Yeap said, therefore, that regardless of how many members a new electoral commission had, it should remain majority controlled by the CPP.

Mr. Rainsy said he was more hopeful of compromise.

“I am confident. I think the timing is going to solve the political crisis in all its aspects.”

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