Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Cambodia's opposition boycotts new parliament

AFP , PHNOM PENH

Cambodia's new parliament opened yesterday in the absence of the opposition parties which declared a boycott, and without King Norodom Sihanouk who refused to preside unless they agreed to attend.

The ceremony was instead led by Chea Sim, who is president of the Senate and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which was the only party to attend after the royalist FUNCINPEC and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) stayed away.

"Today is a special day as the third parliament opens its new session according to the constitution," Chea Sim said in an opening speech.

"Cambodian people and the international community are waiting to see the formation of the new government," he added.

The CPP led by Prime Minister Hun Sen won line honors in the national ballot but failed to win the two-thirds majority required to rule in its own right and has since been attempting to form a coalition.

FUNCINPEC, which served as a junior partner in the outgoing coalition, and SRP, whose leader is a bitter enemy of Hun Sen, have so far publicly refused to join forces with the powerful party.

The event at the National Assembly got off to a late start after the king decided at the last minute to attend and then changed his mind again, parliamentary officials said.

In chaotic scenes watched by bemused diplomats, Chea Sim's insignia was taken down and replaced by the king's logo, before a phone call from the royal palace advised the cancellation and the signs were switched again.

A motorbike escort which had been waiting outside the palace was stood down, and Chea Sim began the inauguration by taking an honor guard.

The king's cancellation appeared to be in response to a letter from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) which reiterated it would not attend.

"I am sending a fax to his majesty the king saying that we will not go," SRP leader Sam Rainsy told reporters earlier at his headquarters where the party's newly-elected MPs were gathered.

The king, who is widely respected among his people, had for weeks warned he would not preside over the ceremony unless all three parties attended, in what was seen as an attempt to bring SRP and FUNCINPEC into line.

Sam Rainsy said the inauguration was a CPP failure and had reduced the standing of Hun Sen.

"This means the current government led by Hun Sen will become a caretaker government ... and he cannot do anything like he used to do," he said.

Japanese ambassador Gotaro Ogawa said the three political parties should begin working on a resolution as soon as possible.

"They have their own arguments [for not attending the session], but I just repeat that they have to work it out," he said in comments echoed by French ambassador Andre Jean Libourel.

"Everyone hopes the new government will be formed according to the constitution of Cambodia as soon as possible," Libourel told reporters outside the parliament building.

SRP and FUNCINPEC have formed an "Alliance of Democrats" aimed at denying Hun Sen his victory and installing a tripartite government with a "neutral" premier -- an idea roundly rejected by the CPP.

However, secret meetings between CPP and FUNCINPEC officials have sparked talk that the royalists may again side with Hun Sen.

Long-time political observer Chea Vanath, director of the Cambodian Centre for Social Development, said she was confident the political farce following the July 27 elections would resolve itself eventually.

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