Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A royal tussle in Cambodia

A royal tussle in Cambodia
By Verghese Mathews

All is not well with Cambodia 's Funcinpec (FCP), the royalist political party founded by ex-king Norodom Sihanouk and until now led by his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

An extraordinary congress on Wednesday controversially voted to remove Ranariddh as party leader on the grounds that he was no longer performing his duties, that he was too often traveling outside of the country and that he was unable to work with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The two long-time political rivals, according to political insiders, after a 2004 rapprochement that allowed for the formation of a
coalition government, are once again on bad terms.

Even by Cambodia 's rough and tumble political standards these represent serious allegations which Ranariddh will have difficulty dismissing in his usual off-hand manner. The bold and unprecedented move by a strong faction inside FCP was immediately declared illegal by Ranariddh loyalists, who pointed out that under the party's constitution, Ranariddh was "president for life". That's perhaps the biggest reason the often embattled politician has maintained the party's top post for so long.

The greater surprise arose from the congress's decision to choose Keo Puth Rasmey, Cambodia's ambassador to Germany, as Ranariddh's replacement. Rasmey is Ranariddh's brother-in-law through his marriage to Princess Arun, Ranariddh's royal half-sister. Rasmey is known as a mild, amiable and hard-working diplomat, well respected by his peers but viewed as a highly unlikely candidate to serve as leader of such a fractious party.

Cleverly, the congress did not overtly give Ranariddh the boot - rather they kicked him upstairs to the position of "historic leader", a high-sounding rank though no doubt construed as a ceremonial position with little power. They also unveiled a new party logo which was strikingly similar to the previous one, except that Ranariddh's portrait was tellingly removed.

Ranariddh has rejected his new title and vowed to sue party members behind the move. In the meantime, he told various news outlets on Friday that he planned to start up a new political party in the upcoming months named after himself.

Speculation is that Ranariddh's "ouster" and the selection of Rasmey were the brainchild of FCP secretary general Nhiek Bun Chhay, a former defense minister whose party faction is known to be on good terms with Hun Sen's Cambodia's People party (CPP). Two others closely associated with Bun Chhay are the wily politician and psychological warfare strategist, Lu Lay Sreng, and the urbane Prince Sisowath Sirirath, himself a former defense minister and ambassador to the UN. Both Lu Lay Sreng and Sisowath Sirirath were chosen as Rasmey's deputies.

If Ranariddh's removal as president comes to pass, as some anticipate, power inside FCP will shift from the president and chairman to the secretary general, effectively making Bun Chhay party leader. Political insiders say an important figure behind the scenes in all this is Princess Arun, Rasmey's wife and Sirirath's former wife, who is currently serving as Cambodia 's ambassador to Malaysia.

One keen Cambodian observer characterized the move as a shrewd "coup" by the Bun Chhay faction, whereby an angry Ranariddh will hypothetically resign from the party. That, he notes, is the one legal way to guarantee his removal and open the way for new party leaders to prepare for upcoming provincial and national elections. The observer also noted that it was not in CPP's interest to see the total demise of FCP, as that would strengthen the hand of the more confrontational opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

The latest power play and intra-party rivalries threaten to permanently dismember FCP. In the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, FCP won more seats than CPP, but progressively fared worse against Hun Sen's party in the following two polls. The irony is that the royals are being increasingly sidelined in what had hitherto been a royalist party.

Royal reactions
A royal reaction to its diminishing political role was the recent public call made by Prince Sisowath Thomico, a close relative of Sihanouk, for Ranariddh to disband the FCP and for its loyal royal members to join his newly formed Sangkum Jatiniyum Front (Alliance of the National Community). Thomico, however, went much further when he called on the government to be dissolved and for power to be handed back to former king Sihanouk, a controversial position Ranariddh has backed.

Hun Sen's angry retort to those planning what he referred to as a "constitutional coup" was that they had better "prepare their coffins" first. Former king Norodom Sihanouk, who like Hun Sen understands all too well Cambodian political power plays, not only promptly distanced himself from his relative's interventionist call, but also cut off the latter prince's monthly stipend from the royal purse. This has not, however, prevented isolated calls for the royals to either move out of politics or move out of royalty.

Hun Sen's "coffin" outburst was the latest indicator that the cordial relations he had forged with his long-time political rival Ranariddh, which after much controversy allowed for the formation of a coalition government in July 2004, have recently badly deteriorated. And it's highly significant that those strained ties are breaking out in the open at a time when FCP infighting has reached new divisive proportions.

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) would logically stand the most to gain from FCP's weakening or possible disappearance from the political scene. Yet the smaller opposition party is only now shaking off the doldrums of party leader Sam Rainsy's long period of self-imposed exile. SRP is just now beginning to prepare for the April 2007 commune council elections, and it can be expected to renew its strident support of populist causes during the 2008 general elections. Although the party is weaker now than when it ran candidates in the 2003 elections, it is at the moment the only credible political opposition to Hun Sen and CPP.

CPP, on the other hand, has been going from strength to strength, consolidating its hold on political power. Most importantly, the CPP will no longer need to rely on FCP or SRP to form a government, as it did after the previous three general elections, when a two-thirds majority was required. A recent constitutional amendment allows the party with the most votes to form a government with a simple majority, a requirement the CPP will no doubt be able to fulfill after the 2009 polls.

As for FCP, the prognosis will depend largely on whether Ranariddh truly breaks away and forms his own party, as he has threatened to do. His initial reaction to the surprise realignment enforced on Wednesday by Bun Chhay's ascendant faction, which, significantly unlike Ranariddh, is willing to work hand-in-hand with the CPP, doesn't auger well for future party unity. And if the FCP's two power centers are unable to reach a compromise and debilitating factionalism intensifies, it's possible that disillusioned voters will help to put the party out of its misery at the ballot box.

Verghese Mathews, Singapore 's former ambassador to Cambodia, is presently a visiting research fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He can be reached at mathews@iseas.edu.sg

(Copyright 2006 Verghese Mathews)

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