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Despite Jail for Opposition Activists, Political Cooperation Remains


Meach Sovannara (C), a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), cries next to CNRP President Sam Rainsy (L) and Deputy President Kem Sokha before a Buddhist ceremony at the CNRP office in Phnom Penh April 13, 2015.

Meach Sovannara (C), a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), cries next to CNRP President Sam Rainsy (L) and Deputy President Kem Sokha before a Buddhist ceremony at the CNRP office in Phnom Penh April 13, 2015.

Cambodian officials from the ruling party and opposition say they will continue to work together in political dialogue, despite a court ruling this week that delivered major jail sentences to 11 pro-opposition activists.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday announced guilty verdicts for the activists, including US citizen Meach Sovannara, on charges of “insurrection” related to violent protests a year ago. The charges carry a sentence of between 7 and 20 years.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told VOA Khmer Thursday that the convictions of the activists are not related to political agreements between the two parties. The CPP plans to maintain a “culture of dialogue” with the Rescue Party, he said.

“The convictions of the 11 CNRP activists was law enforcement by the court,” he said. “The two political parties’ agreement is completely different. Don’t confuse them.”

On Wednesday, the Rescue Party issued a statement expressing “strong disappointment” in the courts, for convictions that “created political tension again, despite political agreement.”

Rescue Party spokesman Yem Ponhearith said the party is looking for ways to free the 11 activists, while staying true to agreements from political negotiations last year. Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy is currently in France, but he will seek ways to discuss the case with Prime Minister Hun Sen, the spokesman said.

In a statement, Sam Rainsy said his trip was unavoidable, adding that “the culture of dialogue is still new and fragile but it will prove vital for the country's democratic future.” Were it not for such dialogue, “repression would have been much worse” over the last year, he said.

The Cambodian courts are roundly criticized as a tool for the ruling party. Analysts say the activists could still be released under political negotiations, especially if the Rescue Party ends its demonstrations against alleged Vietnamese border encroachment, which has become a thorny diplomatic issue for Hun Sen.

Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, told VOA Khmer the convictions are a sign of a fragile agreement between the two sides. They also present a conundrum for Rescue Party leaders, he said. “If they keep on with a culture of dialogue, despite the jailing of activists, this will cause its supporters to be disappointed.”

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