In an opening speech to Cambodia’s newly elected parliament on Monday, King Norodom Sihamoni called on lawmakers and the government to reconcile their deep divisions, though political commentators and opposition officials say the effort will amount to naught.
The July 23 elections, won by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in a landslide, have been widely criticized by Western governments and opposition activists because authorities kept the main opposition Candlelight Party from participating on a technicality.
Three days after the election, Prime Minister Hun Sen – who has ruled the country since 1985 – announced he would step down and hand power to his eldest son, army chief Hun Manet.
The king, who has served as the head of the country’s constitutional monarchy since October 2004, issued a royal message calling on members of the National Assembly and the government to forge national reconciliation and adhere to the four Brahmanical principles of Buddhism.
Norodom Sihamoni said he expected the new government to win the trust of the National Assembly to develop and strengthen the comprehensive social protection system for Cambodian citizens.
A high degree of unity and solidarity would ensure the strong existence of a national identity, promote socioeconomic development and boost morality for the harmony of society, the king said.
“On this great occasion, I wish the 7th National Assembly to run smoothly and carry out its role with a responsible conscience in order to achieve new successes for the common good of the motherland,” the king told the 125 lawmakers, all of whom except five were from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party or CCP. The others were from Funcinpec led by Prince Norodom Chakravuth, the king’s nephew.
Hun Sen, former National Assembly President Heng Samrin, and Interior Minister Sar Kheng also were in attendance.
Political analysts and opposition officials said the king’s speech reflected his view that the country’s political divisions would harm the nation, though the situation would not likely change.
Um Sam An, a senior official from the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, said the king’s remarks were intended to guide the new government and lawmakers back onto a democratic path for the benefit of society following what he called “fake” elections.
The CNRP official also said that the king was likely dissatisfied with the leadership of the previous one-party government, which often persecuted dissidents and opposition groups.
“He warned the deputies to be kind and treat the people well,” Um Sam An said, adding that the political crisis in Cambodia has gotten worse with the holding of “fake” elections this year and in 2018.
“So, he understands that democracy and respect for human rights will only get worse in Cambodia,” said Um Sam An.
Hun Sen dissolved the opposition CNRP in 2017 and later prevented the party’s leader, Sam Rainsy, from returning to Cambodia to stand trial on charges that rights groups said were politically motivated.
Political commentator Kim Sok condemned the new government, saying it was born of fraudulent elections.
“This illegitimate government and parliament face a huge reaction from the international community, the reaction of the people who will protest around the world,” he said. “And in the face of both economic and social crises, poverty and unemployment will occur. All these crises weaken our country.”
Knowing these prospects, the king has called for national unity, which is all his authority allows him to do, Kim Sok added.
CCP spokesman Sok Eysan told Radio Free Asia that the king’s statement was a general message to people from all walks of life, not a reference to the new government or the National Assembly. He also said that national unity depended on the attitude of the opposition.
Patrick Murphy, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, who attended the opening of the National Assembly, sent a positive message to the newly elected lawmakers.
“As the new gov’t. begins its tenure, it can restore multi-party democracy, end political convictions, and allow independent media to reopen & function without interference, he tweeted.
Translated by Sokry Sum for Ijreportika Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.