Thought-provoking meeting between Cambodia rivals
Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Khmer Times Thu May 7, 2020
PHNOM PENH – Images of Prime Minister Hun Sen and former opposition leader Kem Sokha, a rival who faces a treason charge, shaking hands on Tuesday have surprised their supporters and observers alike.
The observers and officials from both sides yesterday voiced their appreciation over their meeting, saying it signals a positive development for politics in the Kingdom.
It is the first time the two rivals have met since four years ago before the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which Mr Sokha led, was dissolved by Supreme Court in 2017.
Mr Sokha, former CNRP president, was apprehended in September 2017 for allegedly colluding with the US to topple the government through a colour revolution. He is currently on trial at the Phnom Penh municipal court on a charge of “conspiracy with foreign powers”.
The photos uploaded on local news and social media since Tuesday evening showed Mr Sokha in a black business suit while Mr Hun Sen wore loose white clothing to mourn his mother-in-law Bun Siengly who passed away on Monday, at age 96.
According to senior officials from both sides, both politicians spoke for about 50 minutes off record over what they termed in the “interest of the nation and people”.
Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, yesterday said he believes the meeting between them was well organised for a specific purpose.
“If there was no preparation before it, I believe there would not have been a meeting because the funeral was held at the Prime Minister’s official residence [which requires protocol] and not at any normal home[where Mr Sokha could simply walk in to pay his respects],” he said.
However, Mr Phea said the meeting was a good sign of political dialogue.
“I think it a good gesture that has been welcomed by all Cambodians, including supporters from both from the ruling and opposition groups,” he said. “They were happy when they saw the pictures of the two politicians resuming communication.”
“They do not need to fight each other all the time,” Mr Phea added.
He said the meeting paints a “good image” of the political development, but people should not read much into it.
“If we look at the political aspect, it is a good sign as Cambodian politicians can use this special circumstance to soften their stance, but the question is whether in the near future there is any political compromise or not,” Mr Phea added.
Accompaning Mr Sokha to attend Tuesday’s funeral were his cabinet chief Muth Chantha, former opposition lawmaker Yem Ponharith and two of his defence lawyers, Meng Sopheary and Chan Chen.
Mr Hun Sen was seen accompanied by his deputy prime minister Bin Chin, who is also Minister in Charge of the Office of the Council of Ministers.
Mr Chantha could not be reached for comment but said in a statement yesterday that besides expressing his “heartfelt condolences” to Mr Hun Sen and his wife, Mr Sokha also discussed a matter of “national interest” with the prime minister but he did not provide details of the meeting.
“On that occasion, Samdech Techo Hun Sen and HE Kem Sokha met for almost 50 minutes on the welfare and interests of the nation and people.” Mr Chantha said.
Ms Spheary said yesterday that Mr Sokha attended the funeral to express his condolences to Mr Hun Sen and his family, but she could not hear what they said.
“The first purpose of his visit was to pay his respects to the deceased [ Ms Siengly], secondly, he expressed his deepest sympathy and condolences and thirdly, he exchanged some views [with Mr Hun Sen],” she said.
Sok Eysan, a senator and CPP spokesman, said yesterday the meeting between both politicians was “good thing” but he described it as a “normal meeting”.
“The meeting is good but they [observers] should not read any political or legal motives over a meeting held during a traditional funeral,” he said. “They were respectful towards each other.”
“I think it was a normal meeting and has nothing to do with the ongoing legal case [Mr Sokha’s],” Mr Eysan added.
He said he did not believe Mr Hun Sen had discussed current political matters with Mr Sokha, saying that when Sam Rainsy’s mother-in-law passed away in 2016, Mr Hun Sen also sent a condolence letter to Mr Rainsy’s family.
Mr Rainsy, co-founder of CNRP, on Monday also sent a condolence letter from France over the death of Hun Sen’s mother-in-law.
“Even though we have different political views, sadness over the death of loved ones happens to everyone,” he said in his letter.
Even before their meeting, Mr Sokha has adopted a conciliatory attitude towards Mr Hun through words and deeds, inviting speculation from the public on political developments.
On March 24, Mr Sokha donated $5,000 that he raised to support the National Commission for Combatting COVID-19.
On January 4, Mr Sokha took to Facebook and expressed his condolences to families of the deceased workers following the deadly building collapse in Kep city which left 36 dead and 23 injured.
“I would like to extend my condolences to the families who lost their members in the collapse of the seven-storey building,” Mr Sokha said in his message.
In response, during a press conference at that time, Mr Hun Sen said Mr Sokha’s message was humanitarian and better than his government officials who pushed for the removal of Kep provincial governor Ken Satha.
“Kem Sokha’s message is better than some government officials who wanted me to fire this person or that person,” Mr Hun Sen said at the time.
Mr Sokha remains on trial which could take three months to complete, with the court holding two hearings every week but the COVID-19 outbreak caused the trail to be suspended.
However, the Appeal Court next week will hear arguments from Mr Sokha’s lawyers who are opposing a decision made by Phnom Penh Municipal judges to accept new evidence submitted by the prosecution, Ms Spheary said.
Social commentator Em Sovannara said yesterday he agrees that the meeting was a good move but expressed doubt over the sincerity of politicians.
“I think that when two rivals can sit down and talk to each other, it is a good move,” he said. “But I have noted that so far nothing changes even after such meetings.”
Mr Sovannara said he did not think the meeting between Mr Hun Sen and Mr Sokha would
influence the European Union’s decision to partially remove the Kingdom’s Everything-but-arms trade status owing to “serious and systematic violations of human rights and democracy”.
Senior political analyst Lao Mong Hay yesterday described the meeting as “power politics”.
“The gesture has not drawn my attention because it could just be more power politics, which has been used by politicians since a very long time ago,” he said, referring to a model applied by Chinese warlord Cao Cao, an important historical figure during the Three Kingdom period.
“In Cambodian power politics…the actual outcome of the act is everything,” he added.