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Hopes of a Political Compromise are Kindled as Kem Sokha and Hun Sen Meet


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, talks with dissolved main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha at the mourning ceremony of Sen's mother in-law, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Pool via AP)

Opposition leader Kem Sokha had a rare meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday at the funeral ceremony of the latter, marking the first time the two have met since for opposition leader’s arrest in 2017.

First Lady Bun Rany’s mother, Bun Seang Ly, passed away at 96 years old on May 4 and former Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha paid the first family a condolence visit, and spent an additional 50 minutes speaking to the prime minister.

The exchange caused a lot of conversation on Twitter and Facebook about a potential reconciliation between the two leaders, even as Hun Sen’s government pushes ahead with treason charges against Kem Sokha.

It wasn’t clear what the two leaders spoke about, with pictures showing them having a long conversation. Chan Chen, one of Sokha’s lawyers who accompanied him to the ceremony, said he was seated too far away to know what the two politicians were speaking about.

“We were sitting far away from them, and we don’t know what His Excellency Kem Sokha and Samdech Prime Minister were discussing. We couldn’t hear,” he said.

Muth Chantha, a close aide to Kem Sokha and also presented at the funeral ceremony, posted a message on his Facebook page that Kem Sokha strictly followed the principle of Khmer solidarity, especially in difficult circumstances.

He continued that Hun Sen and Kem Sokha talked for nearly 50 minutes about their “well-being, national interest, and the Cambodian people,” did not provide specifics.

The images were reminiscent of the July 2015 family dinner meeting between former CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen, after a contentious post-2013 election period. The duo even took a widely-shared selfie, touting the meeting of the two families as emblematic of the so-called “culture of dialogue.”

However, four months later, in November 2015, Sam Rainsy did not return to Cambodia from a trip to South Korea, after an arrest warrant in a years-old defamation case had been resurrected by the government.

Kem Sokha is currently under trial for treason, with the trial temporarily delayed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The government has alleged that Kem Sokha conspired with foreign powers, such as the United States, to mount a so-called color revolution during the period spanning 1993 to the date of his arrest in September 2017.

The international community and local stakeholders had pushed for a political compromise that would see Kem Sokha released and the CNRP reinstated, which never came to fruition. This was also one of the factors in the European Union’s decision to partially suspend the “Everything but Arms” trade preferences in February.

Chhim Phal Vorun, spokesman for the Cambodian People’s Party and a witness in the Kem Sokha trial, the 50-minute dialogue was merely about the sharing of condolences.

“It’s not a gesture among political figures but it is someone paying homage to the soul of a dead person and show mutual respect,” he said. “It’s nothing more than that. It’s also the norm and tradition of Cambodians.”

Korn Savang, a senior officer at election monitoring NGO Comfrel, said the discussion could be a sign of a possible political compromise. He said the dialogue between the two leaders needed to continue in order to ease heated political tensions, especially as social and economic structures in the country are tested by the pandemic.

“If there is no such discussion and if our politicians don’t talk to each other for the solutions, it means that the future situation will be much worst then now,” he said.

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