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Opposition Maintains Principles, Despite Pressure, Sam Rainsy Says

The Cambodia National Rescue Party has met resistance and pressure during political negotiations with the ruling party, but opposition leader Sam Rainsy says they have not changed their position on the need for major reforms.

“What we want, and the principles we protect, we’re maintaining them,” he told “Hello VOA” Thursday.

The party wants free and fair elections, which it says requires major changes, something analysts say the ruling Cambodian People’s Party may not fully cooperate with, despite a political deal between the two sides last July.

The Rescue Party made major gains in the National Assembly in the 2013 election, earning 55 of 123 seats, despite claims of fraud and irregularities. But it boycotted the government for nearly a year before talks finally began. Those talks continue, but the environment has not been free of pressure.

Currently, 19 housing rights activists remain in jail, including opposition members and supporters, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently said seven opposition lawmakers could face legal action for violent demonstrations last July.

Sam Rainsy and Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha on Thursday visited the activists, who said the party should not compromise in negotiations due to their incarceration.

“They said not to worry about them,” Sam Rainsy said afterward. “They will be patient. Even though they face hardships, they understand that what is important is national affairs. They left us—me, Sam Rainsy, and Kem Sokha—to struggle and demand what we are demanding, like an independent [National Election Committee], and to firmly maintain our stance.”

Both sides continue negotiations, he said, in hopes of drafting election regulations to bring before the National Assembly by the end of February.

But political observers say they fear the effectiveness of the compromises between the two sides, especially if the CPP is not conceding.

“Civil society is concerned, as we don’t know when they’ll have a mutual agreement or how that’s going to affect the long-term interests,” Thida Khus, executive director of the development organization Silaka, said.

She said she remains skeptical the two sides will reach a compromise that allows for an unbiased NEC, which would require financial support, autonomy and accountability.

She also noted negotiations should not conflate political matters with technical details, such as whether a person can be accepted into the NEC with dual citizenship—one of the contentious issues in the talks.

Sam Rainsy, meanwhile, said the Rescue Party is trying to improve election laws and its requisite political and regulatory bodies. They have already made progress, he said, including improvements to existing laws and the NEC. “And we’ve agreed to change from a culture of destruction to a culture of peaceful dialogue.”