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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

COMMENT: Phnom Penh's political theatrics

COMMENT: Phnom Penh's political theatrics
By Verghese Mathews

Political parties are capitalising on Sam Rainsy's decision to 'flee' Cambodia. In particular, each is exploiting growing dissension within the other two parties. CAMBODIAN opposition leader Sam Rainsy made international news early this month when he "fled" Phnom Penh. This was, of course, not the first time that Rainsy had either fled the country or sought refuge in the French or the US Embassies. Nor is it likely to be the last.

In the past, such theatricals were followed predictably by messages of support for the media-savvy leader from select US congressmen, European parliamentarians and human rights groups. This is already happening and more can be expected in the coming days.

Arguably, this time round, Rainsy had greater reason to flee than on some of the previous instances - the National Assembly had revoked his parliamentary immunity making him liable for prosecution in the defamation suits he has been slapped with.

Two other party members were similarly stripped of their immunity and one has since been detained.

Essentially, Rainsy fled to prevent immediate detention for questioning by the courts and also, as a party stalwart candidly admitted, "to draw international attention to the lack of democracy in Cambodia".

One of the defamation suits was lodged by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) following Rainsy's accusation that the premier had plotted to assassinate him.

Another was by Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the Funcinpec Party (FCP) in response to Rainsy's allegation that Ranariddh accepted bribes before his party joined Hun Sen's Government.

Hun Sen and Ranariddh, both understandably piqued by these allegations, have argued that MPs should not be allowed to use the cover of parliamentary immunity to defame others.

They have also assured the international community that the withdrawal of the immunity of the three MPs merely opened the way for the courts to question them and that the due process of law would be strictly followed.

Unfortunately, there are many detractors both in the international community and among Cambodians themselves, who are openly sceptical of the due process of law in Cambodia.

The US very quickly made it clear that the parliamentary action was "a major setback to democracy" in Cambodia and expressed deep concern that the National Assembly had chosen to occupy itself "with political activity that appears designed to silence the Opposition".

Similar concerns were voiced by the US-based Human Rights Watch and the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.

The speed and intensity of these comments are primarily an indication of Sam Rainsy's incredible outreach.

His party's understanding and adroit use of information technology are light years ahead of the CPP and the royalist FCP.

That aside, the point to be made here is that the latest development is neither unusual nor surprising in the Cambodian political theatre where inter-party intrigues and intra-party infighting are unfortunately commonplace.

A perceptive diplomat privately noted that invariably the theatricals in Phnom Penh became more pronounced when a party had its own internal problems or when it sensed advantage in exploiting growing dissension within the other two parties. This comment reflects well the current preoccupation of the main political parties.

The dominant CPP can no longer take its party unity for granted.

Though factionalism had long existed, with Hun Sen leading one faction and party president Chea Sim the other, the differences had hitherto been well managed and equally well contained.

Initially, the two factions were fairly balanced with the Chea Sim faction acting as a sort of check of the other.

However, in the last few years the Hun Sen faction had significantly tipped the balance and the resultant unhappiness spilled uncharacteristically into the public domain a couple of months ago.

The party's immediate preoccupation is understandably to reconcile the two factions. If this fails and there is serious party disunity, it would be at the risk of political stability in the country.

Some bruising can be expected but the general expectation still is that the CPP will close ranks to remain the dominant political force for some time yet.

The FCP is in a much worse-off position and will have to do some serious soul-searching to regain the credibility and the ground it had progressively lost since the first elections in 1993 when it polled the largest number of seats.

It is now a pale shadow of its old self and this may well be its last chance to remain relevant in mainstream politics. The situation within FCP is taking time to stabilise.

The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) has its factions as well but it is a party motivated by a clear mission - to be the Government after the 2008 elections. To this end, it has the indispensable support of its foreign allies, in particular the influential US-based International Republican Institute.

However, the SRP has a long way to go to realise its ambition and it too needs to overcome a credibility problem. While the party rightly exploits every weakness in government, it has a tendency of going overboard.

Likewise, Sam Rainsy gets carried away sometimes when projecting himself as a fearless opposition leader and a champion of the marginalised and the disadvantaged.

This is the backdrop to the current political developments. As for Sam Rainsy's present difficulties, he can be expected to deftly walk the various Western corridors to seek international condemnation of the Cambodian Government, particularly of Hun Sen and Ranariddh.

If need be, he will not hesitate to even appeal to King Sihamoni and/or former King Sihanouk.

What is certain is that when the time is right he will return to Phnom Penh - he has to.

He may or may not not have gained new converts this time round but would have earned some propaganda mileage and, more importantly, ensured the continued support of those who see him as the future "democratic" leader of a "democratic Cambodia".

* The writer, Singapore's former Ambassador to Cambodia, is presently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

SUBMITTED BY: Verghese Mathews on Sat, 15 Feb 2005

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