Prime Minister Hun Sen Declares a Ceasefire in Cambodia’s War of Words

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday declared a holiday ceasefire in the political war of words that he and his political rivals have waged as they battle for the hearts and minds of Cambodian voters.

"On Monday there was a standoff," he told Puthisastra University graduates. "On Tuesday there was a ceasefire, so it seems there should not be any exchanges of fire. I will wait during the Pchum Ben festival and see who attacks first."

Pchum Ben is a 15-day Cambodian religious festival, culminating in celebrations on the 15th day of the tenth month in the Khmer calendar. That falls on Oct. 1 this year, and is when many Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party official Eng Chhai Eang cast doubt on Hun Sen's sincerity, telling RFA's Khmer Service that actions speak louder than words.

"There must be a common political solution for the two parties, who have seats in the national assembly," he said. "If he remains quiet only during the Pchum Ben festival, and then after the festival is over he starts arresting and filing lawsuits against the opposition, civil society and human rights officials, that would not be good."

He urged Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, to make a true good-will gesture to prove he is serious about calming tensions.

"If those in jail due to political reasons, including civil society, human rights, and political activists, are let out of prison during the Pchum Ben festival, that would be even better," he said.

Hun Sen's declaration comes after there were indications that the opposition CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) could be on the verge of a rapprochement after spending much of this year fighting.

On Tuesday senior CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay indicated that the party's lawmakers would end a boycott and return to the National Assembly in an effort to end the country's political crisis.

Son Chhay's pronouncement may have been premature, as local media reported that CNRP President Sam Rainsy said on Wednesday that the opposition party would continue to boycott National Assembly sessions.

"Going back to the National Assembly under the present circumstances would mean that the political situation has returned to normal, which is far from being the case," Mr. Rainsy said in an email to The Cambodia Daily.

No legal armistice

While Hun Sen was declaring a cease fire on political bombast, the government pressed ahead with its legal battle with the opposition.

On Thursday the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced the deputy secretary of Cambodia's National Election Commission to a six-month prison term and a 6 million Riel (U.S. $1,500) fine for accusing a judge and prosecutor of corruption in 2015.

While he was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Ny Chakriya told reporters the court decision is an attack on justice.

"We cannot expect justice from a society with no justice," he said. "The court could not provide justice and to get a fair trial is difficult."

In July 2015, when Ny Chakriya headed the human rights section of the non-governmental organization ADHOC, he accused deputy prosecutor Sok Keo Bandit and Siem Reap Provincial Court investigating judge Ki Rithy of colluding to commit corruption in a high-profile land dispute in the Svay Leu district.

Ny Chakriya was appointed to the NEC to balance the panel between ruling and opposition delegates ahead of the 2017 local and 2018 national elections.

While he was convicted on Thursday of "malicious denunciation" and "publication of commentaries intended to unlawfully coerce judicial authorities," it is not the end of his legal troubles.

Ny Chakriya is one of five people arrested by the government in its wide-ranging probe into an alleged affair between opposition CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha and a young hairdresser.

Defense attorney Sam Sokong said the case decided on Thursday is unfair and severely restricts the rights of his client.

"When using the criminal code for the trial, it looks like the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech have been restricted and violated," he said.

The opposition, civil society groups and international rights groups view the case decided Thursday and the Kem Sokha case as politically motivated, reflecting Hun Sen's drive to weaken the opposition before the coming elections.

A coalition of 35 civil society organizations condemned Ny Chakriya's conviction, saying in a joint statement that it is part of an "escalating crackdown on independent voices."

"It also represents a disturbing criminalization of the legitimate activities of human rights defenders," the groups wrote. "This farcical judicial process raises serious doubts as to whether the upcoming elections can be considered free, fair or credible."

In another closely-watched case, Phnom Penh court deputy prosecutor Ly Sophanna told RFA that Hun Sen's lawsuit against Sam Rainsy Party Sen. Thak Lany was sent to the Phnom Penh court for trial.

Hun Sen sued Thak Lany and Sam Rainsy for defamation over remarks they allegedly made that tie the July 10 murder of government critic Kem Ley to the prime minister.

Thak Lany denies she made the remarks, saying that her comments were edited to make her look like she was lodging the criticism. While the Sam Rainsy Party still holds seats it won in the Cambodian parliament, it has since merged with the CNRP.

A court date has yet to be set for the trial.

Calling on the king

While Hun Sen was declaring a cease fire, and legal cases against the opposition ground on, a minor party known as the Cambodian National Justice Party (CNJP) called on King Norodom Sihamoni to intervene in the political standoff between the CNRP and the CPP.

In a letter to the king dated Wednesday, the CNJP said Norodom Sihamoni should step in to avoid bloodshed among Khmer people and remove an obstacle to the national economy. There was no immediate reply from the king.

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