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Cambodian PM, opposition in second day of talks

September 17, 2013

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian strongman Hun Sen met leaders of the country’s main opposition party again on Tuesday, the second day of crucial talks aimed at finding a way out of the country’s post-election deadlock.

After demonstrations over the weekend triggered clashes with security forces that left one man dead and at least 10 people wounded, the political rivals met Monday and found rare common ground. But the meeting failed to resolve the opposition’s key demand for an independent probe of election irregularities they say cost them the July vote.

The crisis is proving to be one of the biggest challenges yet to the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly three decades.

The opposition has called for a boycott of parliament’s first session on Sept. 23. Three days of protests in the capital are due to end Tuesday evening, but the opposition has threatened to stage more.

In scattered clashes in Phnom Penh on Sunday, security forces used water cannons, smoke grenades and live ammunition, rights groups said, killing one person and wounding at least 10 over the course of the day.

Hun Sen and opposition chief Sam Rainsy, accompanied by their top aides, met for more than four hours Monday at the National Assembly.

The two sides issued a joint statement saying they agreed on three points — to meet again for more talks, to ensure future protests were peaceful and to set up a committee for reforming the election process in the future. Their second meeting was set for Tuesday.

“We have different views and different perceptions, but we are Cambodians — we have the same blood, so we do not consider each other enemies,” Yim Sovann, the opposition party’s spokesman, told reporters after the meeting ended.

However, the ruling party rejected the main demand for an investigation into polling fraud, saying the results of the election were ratified on Sept. 8 and the government has no legal means of carrying it out. The results gave Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party 68 assembly seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s 55.

“The Cambodian People’s Party cannot walk backward and establish an independent committee (to investigate the results),” said Prak Sokhon, a ruling party spokesman. “The election body and the Constitutional Council have already made the decision.”

The agreement to study election reform appeared to be a point on which the opposition might eventually claim a victory. When it was announced at the group’s rally site, it was met with enthusiastic cheers.

The opposition’s gains were a dramatic increase from the 29 seats it won in the previous election, but Sam Rainsy says the opposition would have won a majority if the election were conducted fairly.

Political analysts say the ongoing protests this week were mostly aimed at appeasing angry supporters and strengthening the opposition’s hand in negotiations with Hun Sen. It could seek an allotment of parliamentary leadership positions and an assembly seat for party leader Sam Rainsy, who was unable to register for the polls, having been in self-imposed exile to avoid a politically-inspired prison term. He was pardoned just before the election.