Cambodia political foes vow to honor truce as lawmakers return

PHNOM PENH Fri Aug 8, 2014 8:27am EDT

1 of 2. Sam Rainsy (C), President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), speaks to media after a meeting at the National Assembly in central Phnom Penh August 8, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Samrang Pring

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PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Opposition lawmakers returned to Cambodia's parliament on Friday after a year-long boycott and vowed along with the ruling party to bury the hatchet and work for the country after a bitter dispute over an election last year.

Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), called for unity and said a political deal on July 22 with the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to end an at times violent crisis would bring a new chapter of history.

"Both sides have shown goodwill, honesty and trust," Sam Rainsy said in his address to parliament.

"We need to eliminate the culture of violence and revenge. We need to create a new culture of peace, talk with respect of for other and find peaceful resolution to all issues."

Sam Rainsy has long been a rival to self-styled "strongman", Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose nearly three decades of authoritarian rule has largely kept the peace in the turbulent democracy, but not without international criticism.

The CNRP rejected the CPP's 2013 election victory, complaining of widespread voter fraud and ruling party interference in the election commission, which will be revamped under the deal between the two sides.

Hun Sen said the two parties had agreed to work together and his opponents would refrain from whipping up anti-Vietnam sentiment for political gain. The CNRP has accused Hun Sen of being a "puppet" of historic foe Vietnam.

"What we agreed was that we are already old, so we must do good deeds for our people," Hun Sen said in his address to the legislature.

FRAGILE TRUCE

Experts say it is too soon to tell whether the truce will last and some anticipate turbulence in the months ahead because of their testy history. Most agree that CNRP's growing popularity has boosted its bargaining power over a prime minister who rarely compromises.

The CNRP's previous incarnation, the Sam Rainsy Party, was for years an impotent force but that all changed last year when the CNRP tapped domestic disenchantment over land grabs, low factory wages and the ruling party's pro-China stance.

It whittled down the CPP's parliamentary majority then hamstrung the government by refusing to take its seats in parliament.

It also joined forces with unions representing 400,000 workers in the $5 billion garment sector and supported protests and strikes for higher pay. Security forces responded harshly several times, killing at least four people.

The political deal does not mean an end to the turmoil in the garment sector, which supplies apparel to GAP, Nike and Hennes & Mauritz among others.

The sector is Cambodia's biggest export earner and unions are still at odds with the government over a $100 minimum monthly wage, which the CNRP had pledged in the run-up to the 2013 election to increase to $160.

Eight unions, representing some 300,000 workers, will renew their campaign for a raise to $177, saying the two political parties were not responding to their demands.

"In case that there is no sufficient resolution on wage demands, strikes will explode," Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union Movement of Workers told Reuters, adding that could happen in October.

CNRP lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth told Reuters the party's stance towards garment workers was "still the same". Asked if the CNRP would support strikes, she said: "We don't want a crisis anymore."

(Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)

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