Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

One big happy family in Cambodia

Mar 20, 2007

By Bertil Lintner Asia Times (Hong Kong)

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's rough-and-tumble politics have long been bloody, marred by frequent political assassinations and violence. But never before have they been quite so blood-linked.

The English-language fortnightly Phnom Penh Post published without comment in late February a family tree it had compiled, revealing how the top leaders of the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) have become more intimate through an old-fashioned Cambodian custom: arranged marriage. And the growing family ties run all the way to the top of Cambodia's political pyramid, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Southeast Asia's longest-serving leader.

For instance, there is Hun Sen's brother, Hun Neng, currently serving as governor of Kompong Cham, whose daughter, Hun Kimleng, is married to the deputy commissioner of Cambodia's National Police, Neth Savoeun. Meanwhile, Hun Neng's son, Hun Seang Heng, is married to Sok Sopheak, the daughter of Sok Phal, another deputy commissioner of the National Police. Hun Sen's 25-year-old son, Hun Manith, is married to Hok Chendavy, the daughter of Hok Lundy, the National Police commissioner.

Another of the premier's sons, Hun Many, 24, is married to Yim Chay Lin, the daughter of Yim Chay Li, secretary of state for rural development. One of Hun Sen's daughters, Hun Mali, 23, meanwhile, is married to Sok Puthyvuth, the son of Sok An, Hun Sen's right-hand man and minister of the Council of Ministers. The friendship between Hun Sen and Sok An dates back to the early 1980s, when Hun Sen was foreign minister and Sok An director of the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now those personal ties run blood deep as in-laws.

And that's just a sampling of the connections at the highest echelons. Heng Samrin, who was Cambodia's head of state from the Vietnamese invasion in January 1979 to the United Nations intervention in 1991, and now serves as president of the National Assembly and honorary CPP president, has a daughter named Heng Sam An, who is married to Pen Kosal, an adviser to Sar Kheng, deputy prime minister and minister of the interior - as well as brother-in-law of Senate and CPP president Chea Sim.

Heng Samrin's adviser, Cham Nimol, is the daughter of Cham Prasidh, minister of commerce. Another of Cham Pradish's daughters, Cham Krasna, is engaged to Sok Sokann, another of minister Sok An's sons. Sar Kheng's son, Sar Sokha, meanwhile, is married to Ke Sunsophy, daughter of Ke Kim Yan, commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. And Hun Sen's wife, Bun Ramy, currently serves as president of the Cambodian Red Cross, while its second vice president, Theng Ay Anny, aka Sok An Anny, is Sok An's wife.

Family traditions

There has been no official reaction to the Phnom Penh Post's revealing study. Intermarriage among members of the ruling political and business elites is not uncommon in Asia.

In neighboring Thailand, Field Marshal Phin Choonhavan's son, Chatichai Choonhavan, became prime minister of Thailand, while his daughter, Khun Ying Udomlak married Phao Sriyanond, director general of the Thai police. Another high-ranking Thai army officer, Thanom Kittikachorn, was the brother-in-law of fellow military dictator Praphas Charusathien, while his son, Narong Kittikachorn, also became a military strongman, while his sister Songsuda married Suvit Yodmani, who has served with several Thai governments.

Sino-Thai tycoons are known to have arranged their children's marriages to members of other top business families to progress their commercial interests. But in Cambodia's case, where many of the political elite were wiped out during Khmer Rouge-led purges between 1975 and 1979, the number of political marriages is extraordinary. And these new family ties between the children of ministers and top officials potentially set the stage for the CPP's grip on power to continue for generations.

Significantly, the CPP's family connection is emerging simultaneously with a waning of the royal family's influence over national politics. Ever since Hun Sen and his inner circle of friends and advisers ousted former prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a 1997 coup, the royalist Funcinpec party's political fortunes have waned.

Ranariddh was forced into exile after the bloody putsch that killed many of his party members, but later returned to Cambodia to become president of the National Assembly after inconclusive general elections in 2003, when the CPP was unable to garner enough votes to form a one-party government and after much squabbling joined with Funcinpec in a wobbly coalition.

One of the sons of former king Norodom Sihanouk and half-brother of the present monarch, Sihamoni, Ranariddh resigned that post last March and subsequently left the country again. While he was away, he was dismissed as co-chairman of the Council for the Development of Cambodia as well as the National Olympic Committee. He later returned to Cambodia - and was ousted as president of Funcinpec, the main opposition party, amid an internal power struggle in October that many political analysts believe Hun Sen had a hand in.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, several of Funcinpec's original leaders were also related. Ranariddh's uncle and former king Norodom Sihanouk's younger half-brother, Norodom Sirivudh, served as foreign minister in a Funcinpec-led government in 1993. Ranariddh's half-brother, Norodom Chakrapong, meanwhile, helped found Funcinpec but later defected to the CPP. Their half-sister and Sihanouk's eldest child, Norodom Bopha Devi, has served as minister of information and culture, while her latest consort, Khek Vandy, was elected to the National Assembly on a Funcinpec list in 1998.

But Funcinpec's family pride has waned considerably since it emerged as the biggest party in the UN-supervised elections in May 1993, when it captured 45% of the popular vote and outpaced the CPP, which came in a close second with 38%. Many political observers think Ranariddh's recent ouster from Funcinpec may represent his last political gasp.

His former Funcinpec colleagues recently sued him on allegations that he embezzled US$3.6 million from the sale of the party's headquarters last August. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found the prince guilty and sentenced him - in absentia - to 18 years in prison. Ranariddh had recently set up a new party, aptly named the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP).

Funcinpec, the NRP and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party will be among 10 different political parties standing against the CPP juggernaut in upcoming commune council elections, which are scheduled for April 1 and widely viewed as a bellwether indicator for next year's general elections.

It may well be an April Fool's election, with the opposition fractured and vulnerable and the CPP allegedly pursuing a campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition candidates and their supporters in rural areas. Khieu Kanharith, CPP minister of information, predicted on February 22 that his party would win about 97% or 98% of the positions in the commune councils, and 95% of the vote in the general elections next year. That may well be the case, as Cambodia is fast morphing into a one-party state dominated by the CPP.

The Phnom Penh Post in its February 9 edition quoted a foreign diplomat as saying: "The CPP controls the government, the National Assembly, the Senate, 99% of the village chiefs, the provincial governments. Their influence goes through the judiciary, through the police ... Practically everything is controlled by one party."

That assessment would appear to jibe with 55-year-old Hun Sen's January 9 pronouncement that he does not intend to stand down from the premiership until he is at least 90 years old. By then, a third generation of CPP family-tied politicians and officials, if everything goes according to the apparent plan, will just be coming of political age.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review, where he reported frequently on Cambodian politics and economics. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

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