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Cambodia's Ruling Party Accused of Trying to Bypass Opposition Boycott - 2003-09-27

Cambodia's minority parties have accused the ruling Cambodian People's Party of trying to trick King Norodom Sihanouk into opening the first meeting of the new National Assembly despite their boycott of the session. In the end, the king stayed away.

The country's two smaller parties, the royalist Funcinpec Party - which is a junior member of the existing coalition government - and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, had both threatened to boycott the opening meeting of the newly-elected National Assembly Saturday, as a protest against perceived election abuses.

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk traditionally opens the new Assembly, but on Friday, the king said he would not attend the session unless lawmakers from all three major parties attended. This threatened to leave the ruling Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, all alone in the Assembly chamber.

But National Assembly officials announced before the start of the session Saturday that the king would preside after all - which sent the opposition party leaders trying frantically to contact the royal palace.

The party leaders accused the CPP of having falsely told the king that they would be attending the meeting, despite their threatened boycott, in an attempt to trick him into taking part in the opening ceremonies.

They later said they were able to get word to the king before he left the palace that the boycott was still on. Finally, the Minister of the Royal Palace arrived just before the opening to announce that, no, the king would not attend.

CPP president Chea Sim opened the meeting in the king's place. The two small parties made good on their boycott threat, the king stayed home, and the 73 CPP parliamentarians were joined in the Assembly chamber only by foreign diplomats. One Cambodian politician likened it to holding a wedding without the bride.

The CPP won a majority in the July 27 national election, capturing 73 of 123 parliamentary seats, but falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to rule the assembly on its own.

Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party joined forces as the Alliance of Democrats after the election, trying to persuade the CPP to accept a three-party coalition as the new government, and to replace Hun Sen as prime minister.

The CPP has rejected both demands, leading to an impasse in forming a new government. The leaders of two small parties said they decided on Saturday's boycott after Hun Sen refused to negotiate on the issue.

Chea Sim and Hun Sen refused to comment to reporters afterwards, but a government spokesman said the session had officially marked the end of the old National Assembly and beginning of the new. The spokesman accused the small parties of not respecting the constitution or the king.