Cambodian opposition boycotts parliament

The long-ruling party of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen pushed ahead with forming a government Monday, ignoring an opposition boycott of parliament and mass protests over its disputed election win.

Anti-riot police were deployed near the National Assembly following weeks of political turmoil that has at times descended into violence in one of the biggest challenges to Hun Sen's nearly three decades in power.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) refused to take its seats for the opening session of the lower house, saying the kingdom was sliding towards "dictatorship".

Despite the boycott, King Norodom Sihamoni asked Hun Sen to form a new cabinet, which must be approved by a majority of the newly elected lawmakers in a vote expected to take place on Tuesday.

The CNRP, which is demanding an independent investigation into the contested July elections, decried what it described as a "one-party parliament".

"It totally contradicts the principle of democracy, freedom and multi-party pluralism and is bringing Cambodia toward dictatorship again," it said.

Hun Sen said he would "serve the nation and the people for greater prosperity and progress" in a letter to thank the king for his support.

The opposition has rejected the results of the July polls, alleging widespread vote irregularities.

According to official results, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won 68 seats against 55 for the CNRP.

That is enough for the ruling party to rubber-stamp the appointment of Hun Sen and his ministers and to pass legislation in the lower house.

But experts said the government would be seen as lacking political legitimacy if it introduces laws without an opposition in parliament.

"A continued boycott will create a sense of crisis in Cambodia. Many people now view the government as lacking credibility," said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

"As a result, the potential for unrest is becoming more and more real as time goes by," he warned. "It is clear that much of the population will not be happy with business as usual in Cambodian politics."

Growing public anger

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters joined three days of demonstrations in the capital earlier this month. One protester was shot dead and several wounded as security forces clashed with a stone-throwing crowd.

Activists also accused dozens of police and thugs in civilian clothing of launching a violent crackdown on a peaceful vigil at a pagoda in the capital late on Sunday, using electric batons and slingshots.

Nine demonstrators as well as several foreign and local journalists were injured, witnesses said.

"They treated us like animals," prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny told AFP.

Hun Sen, who suffered his worst poll result in 15 years in July, last week agreed to find a peaceful solution to the dispute in talks with his main rival Sam Rainsy. But he has ruled out an independent probe.

The 61-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre -- who defected and oversaw Cambodia's rise from the ashes of war -- has vowed to rule until he is 74.

Garment exports and tourism have brought buoyant economic growth but Cambodia remains one of the world's poorer countries and the government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.

Younger Cambodians are also increasingly intolerant of endemic corruption and perceived social injustices including land grabs.

Foreign diplomats also attended the start of parliament, but US ambassador William Todd stressed his participation "in no way is an endorsement of the election result".

"America still believes that the election results still have errors and irregularities that need to be looked into," he told reporters.

The European Union delegation in Cambodia also voiced concern about the unresolved allegations and urged the political parties "to work together to identify any flaws that occurred and to agree steps to improve the electoral process".

suy/dr/sm