By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a political “ceasefire” on Thursday following a wave of prosecutions of opposition members that government critics say is politically motivated in the run-up to elections that Hun Sen fears losing.
Tension between the country’s two main political parties has risen in recent months, with the opposition complaining of a crackdown on critics in a bid to intimidate the opposition before a general election in 2018.
In July, Kem Ley, a political commentator and critic of Hun Sen, was murdered, exacerbating fears that political violence was on the rise. Police say he was killed over a debt.
On Monday, Hun Sen said he would “eliminate” opposition supporters if they went ahead with protests but he was conciliatory on Thursday.
“I should not talk much because there is a ceasefire,” Hun Sen said in a speech at a university graduation.
“I want the situation to be quiet, I don’t want any exchanges.”
Hun Sen said rivals should put aside differences for the Pchum Ben religious festival at the end of the month, when Cambodians pay their respects to their dead.
The festival is a solemn occasion in a country where almost every family lost loved ones during the Khmer Rouge “killing fields” rule of the 1970s.
Son Chhay, a senior member of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), welcomed Hun Sen’s declaration.
“This is a good sign,” he told Reuters.
Son Chhay said his party, which has been boycotting parliament since last year, would return to the assembly to promote dialogue.
“We would participate in parliamentary work again,” he said. “We would like to have a solution through talks.”
The boycott was to protest against the treatment of its leaders and a violent assault on two of its legislators.
The CNRP’s top leader is in self-exile to avoid arrest over a case he says was raked up for political reasons, and its acting leader has been holed up in his headquarters to avoid what he says are separate trumped up charges.
The government denies using the judiciary to hound opponents.
In the latest case against the opposition, Ny Chakrya, an election official and former rights activist, was jailed for six months on Thursday for criticizing the judiciary.
Hun Sen’s party faced its toughest election test in 2013 and his critics say he fears losing in 2018.
Hun Sen, who has ruled for three decades, has warned that a CNRP victory in 2018 would see a return to civil war.
(Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)