Cambodia opposition leader leaves headquarters for first time in 5 months

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's main opposition party on Wednesday welcomed a sign of cooling political tension after authorities refrained from arresting its leader, Kem Sokha, on his emergence from months of being holed up in party headquarters.

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 it before a general election in 2018.

The top leader of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is in self-exile to avoid arrest over a case he says was raked up for political reasons, while Sokha, the acting leader, had stayed in the headquarters since May 6, to avoid what he said were separate trumped-up charges.

Last month, Sokha was sentenced to five months in jail in absentia, on charges of failing to appear in court as a witness in a case against two opposition legislators accused of procuring a prostitute for him.

In a speech on Wednesday, Sokha called for an end to political hostilities.

"The CNRP wants the environment to return to normal, a political environment that is equal for all, to ensure elections that will reflect the people's will," he said.

The party hoped all political parties would be allowed to compete in free and fair elections, he added.

The fact that Sokha was able to leave the headquarters without being arrested signalled a cooling of the tension between the rival parties, a party member told Reuters.

"The situation is less tense now," said Yem Ponhearith.

Members of Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party could not immediately be reached for comment.

Following a wave of prosecutions of opposition members and rights workers, Hun Sen last month declared a political "ceasefire", saying rivals should put aside differences.

Since then, the CNRP, which has been boycotting parliament since last year, said it would return to the assembly to promote dialogue.

Soy Sopheap, a newspaper publisher and longtime political negotiator for Hun Sen, said he had mediated a resolution between the two political rivals.

"Any development will depend on how the opposition party behaves," Sopheap said, adding that the ruling party would watch the CNRP's behaviour.