Cambodia's Hun Sen meets opposition leader over political stalemate

Cambodia's long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen met the head of main opposition party for the first time in years on Saturday in a bid to find a way out of a political stalemate over a disputed election.

The opposition says it would have won had the vote been fair and has vowed to stage a new wave of protests Sunday and boycott parliament's first session Sept. 23 unless an independent committee investigates its claims of widespread voting irregularities. The government has rejected the demands.

Saturday's meeting between Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy was called by King Norodom Sihamoni, and is being held at the Royal Palace in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Sam Rainsy's party made major gains in the July vote, although the ruling party retained a majority of legislative seats. Official results ratified last weekend gave Hun Sen's party 68 seats in the National Assembly and Rainsy's 55.

As the post-election standoff has dragged on, hopes had risen that King Sihamoni could serve as a mediator, a role often played by his father. The late Norodom Sihanouk helped broker an end to civil war in 1991 and arrange power-sharing agreements after the 1993 and 2003 elections.

Sihamoni, who took over the throne in 2004, has so far taken a less active role. Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy both greeted Sihamoni at the capital's airport Wednesday upon his return from China but did not acknowledge each other.

"The king is the only person right now who can get these two parties to meet and discuss all their differences," opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said this week.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that discussions could focus on allotting the opposition several parliamentary leadership positions, reforming the electoral commission and allowing Sam Rainsy to take a seat in parliament.

Just before the diputed vote, Sihamoni pardoned the then self-exiled Sam Rainsy at the request of Hun Sen — likely under international pressure to legitimize the poll. Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia before the election, but too late to register as a candidate himself.

Their meeting comes a day before the opposition has planned another mass protest in Phnom Penh. Opposition leaders have said they expect 20,000 people to turn out again to demand an investigation into the election results. They say the protest will continue for three days.