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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Asean backs off as Hun Sen digs in

Asean backs off as Hun Sen digs in

SECOND Prime Minister Hun Sen is pushing to get National Assembly approval of a new

First Prime Minister, following the collapse of an Asean initiative to propose that

early national elections be held.

Rejecting an Association of Southeast Asian Nations' attempt to mediate between himself,

King Norodom Sihanouk and the ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Hun Sen is taking

a 'no-compromise' line in his bid for national and international legitimacy for a

new government.

Giving Foreign Minister Ung Huot (Funcinpec) his blessing to replace Ranariddh as

First Prime Minister, Hun Sen is moving to have the National Assembly sit on Monday

(July 28) to ratify the appointment.

Huot was nominated July 16 by Funcinpec remnants still in Cambodia, who chose to

abandon Ranariddh and forge a new coalition with Hun Sen.

With about 20 Funcinpec MPs out of the country, most of them Ranariddh loyalists,

the Second Prime Minister appears confident that the remainder of the National Assembly

will vote his way.

Under the Constitution and National Assembly rules, the votes of 84 MPs - from a

total of 120 - are necessary to appoint a new Prime Minister. Hun Sen said July 19

that 96 MPs were in Phnom Penh.

Providing that most of the remaining Funcinpec and Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party

MPs vote along with the 51 MPs of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP), enough

support for Huot's nomination will be achieved.

Political observers said the reopening of the National Assembly - frozen for three

months because of political disputes - would boost Hun Sen's efforts to legitimize

his overthrow of Ranariddh.

While Ranariddh continues on a tour of Asian capitals, attempting to drum up condemnation

of the "coup d'état" against him, his father King Sihanouk has declined

to cast judgment on Hun Sen's actions.

"I cannot present myself as a 'judge' with regard to a 'coup' or 'non-coup d'état',"

the King said in a July 12 statement from Beijing.

The King declared that he would not sign any decrees installing a new government,

but said that he would not oppose the acting Head of State Chea Sim - the CPP president

- signing them in his absence.

While Hun Sen has successfully cut a new coalition deal with the Funcinpec chiefs

who stayed in Cambodia, his campaign to retain international recognition - and aid

and investment money - is proving more tricky.

In particular, Hun Sen's relations with Asean took a body blow after he spurned a

high-level delegation who aimed to mediate a compromise to Cambodia's political impasse.

"We were given quite a clear indication that... Hun Sen believes that Asean

at this stage should not contribute to any solution," Indonesia's Foreign Minister,

Ali Alatas, said after a July 19 meeting with Hun Sen. "Clearly as of this moment

our efforts will stop."

Alatas and the Philippines Foreign Minister Domingo Siazon, and Thai counterpart

Prachuab Chaiyasarn, visited Phnom Penh as official Asean envoys. They earlier met

with King Norodom Sihanouk in Beijing and Ranariddh in Bangkok.

Their intention in Phnom Penh, according to one Asean diplomat, had been to sound

out "what is the bottom line of Hun Sen - can he compromise?".

In particular, the diplomat said, Asean believed that early elections - with Ranariddh

permitted to campaign in them, though not necessarily as First Prime Minister - was

the most viable solution.

"Given the earlier statements of both leaders, they are both confident that

they would win [elections]. So why not let the people decide?"

The diplomat indicated that Asean might accept a Hun Sen-Ung Huot "provisional

government" - with the primary task of organizing elections - because a return

to the First Prime Minister's position by Ranariddh appeared "impossible".

However, the Prince should still be permitted to campaign in the next elections,

with appropriate "international guarantees and local assurances that he would

be safe", the diplomat said.

"Without the consensus of Hun Sen, nothing will work," the diplomat, speaking

before Alatas' meeting with Hun Sen, said about any move toward early elections.

It is unclear whether Alatas and his fellow envoys directly raised with Hun Sen the

issue of early elections and a return by Ranariddh, but either way they received

a clear message to stay out of Cambodia's affairs.

Alatas, after the meeting, said Hun Sen believes that Cambodians will find a solution

"through the Constitution and other relevant laws" and that, if this were

not possible, would seek the help of the King.

Alatas made it plain that Asean still recognized Ranariddh as Cambodia's First Prime

Minister.

Hun Sen said later that he had told Alatas that he intended to continue a coalition

government with Funcinpec until national elections were held as scheduled next May.

Of Asean's attempt to mediate, Hun Sen said: "We did not ask Asean to play any

role in this situation."

Earlier, Hun Sen - stung by Asean's decision to postpone Cambodia's admission to

the regional club following the CPP military offensive against Funcinpec in Phnom

Penh July 5-6 - complained that Asean had broken its cardinal rule of non-interference

in countries' internal affairs.

"I want to stop Asean interference in our internal affairs," the Second

Prime Minister said July 14. "If it continues, I want to withdraw [Cambodia's

candidacy for membership]."

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be an attempt to bring China to his defense in the

face of international disapproval, Hun Sen has claimed that a senior Taiwanese general

had provided funds to support "Ranariddh's illegal forces".

Hun Sen this week ordered the closure of Taiwan's diplomatic agency, the Taipei Economic

and Cultural Representative Office, which he claimed had also assisted Ranariddh.

Political observers suggested that Hun Sen was courting China, which has not issued

any condemnation of his power grab, in an effort to force Asean into accepting his

new government. Alternatively, they suggested that Hun Sen may regard China - which

has uneasy relations with several key Asean nations - as a potential major source

of financial aid if other countries cut their funds for Cambodia.

The toughest foreign stance against Hun Sen has come from the United States, which

outright rejected Ung Huot's nomination as PM.

"We see no evidence whatsoever that Funcinpec has... elected, on a free basis,

on a democratic basis, a successor to Prince Ranariddh," US State Department

spokesman Nicholas Burns said July 16.

Former US congressman Stephen Solarz was expected to arrive in Phnom Penh late this

week, dispatched as a special envoy of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Solarz, who played a key role in initiating the 1991 Paris peace agreements, was

also due to visit Asian capitals including Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok and Jakarta.

Solarz' mission was to try to develop a "coherent initiative" among Asian

nations to the Phnom Penh crisis, Nicholas Burns said July 18.

Solarz would put forward "a very vigorous point of view... that the status quo

cannot be tolerated," Burns said. "We are not willing to concede that we

should do nothing, when democracy has been flouted so brazenly by Hun Sen."

The US, however, has refrained from labeling Hun Sen's action a coup d'état

- a statement which, if it made, would legally require the axing of all aid to Cambodia.

The US Senate, in an apparent bid to force the State Department to make a ruling,

last week voted 99-0 to suspend US aid until Madeleine Albright certified that the

Cambodian government was established by free and fair elections, not by force or

a coup d'état.

Despite US attempts to enlist opposition to Hun Sen's removal of Ranariddh, there

are indications that not all international reaction is against the Second Prime Minister.

Most notably, Australian Ambassador to Phnom Penh Tony Kevin - in a leaked diplomatic

cable - urged Canberra to recognize Hun Sen's new government.

Kevin, describing the former coalition as sterile and unworkable, wrote that Hun

Sen remained a democrat at heart and was seeking to restore stable government.

It is unclear whether Kevin's advice was taken aboard in Canberra. Australian Foreign

Minister Alexander Downer has canceled a planned visit to Cambodia, in what a spokesman

said was an attempt to avoid being seen to be endorsing "Hun Sen or his actions".

Australia's cabinet suspended Canberra's US$1.5 million annual military aid program

to Cambodia, but did not touch its $32 million civil aid package.

Two of Cambodia's biggest aid donors, Japan and France, have refrained from expressing

disapproval of Hun Sen.

The United Nations Security Council, in a July 11 statement, expressed "grave

concern" about Cambodian events, but offered no direct support to Ranariddh.

The statement condemned "all acts of violence" and called upon "all

parties" to resolve their differences by negotiation, in accordance with the

Paris Peace Accords.

Privately, many Phnom Penh diplomats from key donor nations have been dismissing

the seriousness of the recent events and seem eager to get on with a new political

equation.

"It's over. It's finished," said one Western envoy, referring to the recent

fighting. "What we saw was the last battle of the Indochina war."

Said another: "Ranariddh's gone for good. That's it."

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