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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Assembly holds key to Post-Poll crisis

Assembly holds key to Post-Poll crisis

Cambodia lies divided. The Khmer Rouge partition is as real as military power and ideology can make it.

Chakrapong's six provinces are perhaps only a bargaining chip in the ongoing dispute over the distribution of power among the main parties in Cambodian politics in the aftermath of the recent elections.

UNTAC will not solve this problem by turning to its considerable military force, nor should it. Nor does it have to.

With restraint and patience the problem can be solved. The solution lies in the work of the Constituent Assembly this summer.

How debate is conducted in the Constituent Assembly is critical. It must be democratic and seen to be democratic. If the assembly becomes, as now seems possible, a rubber stamp for decisions already made, disaster waits.

If truly open debate and discussion mare allowed in which a clearly defined and independent opposition is heard and seen to have influence, the position of the secessionists will be weakened and their fears resolved.

But as it is currently formulated, the secession problem turns on whether the elections held in Cambodia were truly free and fair - whether they reflected the will of the Cambodian people. But that is only the surface debate.

What is at issue is the meaning of the outcome of the election. UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi wants the break-away elements in the CPP to "accept the new situation and the new reality".

But contrasting interpretations of this situation and reality are what under-lie the current difficulties in Cambodia.

Akashi's interpretation is quite sensible, at least in light of the current political ideology of the developed world - democracy.

As Akashi puts it, the parties must "accept the basic rules of the democratic game which is the peaceful transfer of power on a periodic basis on the basis of the people's judgment."

This seems so sensible as to be un-controversial, but it is not shared by the secessionists and there are good reasons for their view.

By Akashi's view, the consequences of the election are the peaceful transfer of power from a uni-polar to at least a bi-polar, democratic arrangement.

As he put it: "The CPP won considerable support in the elections and should congratulate itself...and it should stay in the democratic and parliamentary process with a view to gaining more support from the people so that the day will come when they might be in the majority position."

As Akashi put it, majority and minority are only temporary, relative terms in a democracy.

When Akashi tells the "secessionists" to accept the results of the election, he is telling them to accept his understanding of the consequences of the election.

Here is where the real disagreement exists.

The break-away faction is not rejecting the results of the election.

They are not even rejecting democracy as the appropriate framework in which to understand the results of the election. For them a choice of frames of reference is not at issue.

Rather, they are rejecting the consequences of the results of the election - as they see them.

This does not justify what they have done - they are subordinating the interests of Cambodia to their own, and are courting possible civil war in order to preserve their own influence-but it does put it in a different light and points to a way out.

Political power in Cambodia is personalized. CPP as a party did not "lose" the election, and FUNCINPEC did not "win" the election.

Ranariddh won and Hun Sen (or Chea Sim) lost. Because political relationships within a party are hierarchical, and describable as subordination in one direction and loyalty in the opposite, all the subordinates lost with them.

All the subordinates see, and have reason to see, their fate connected with the fortunes of their leader.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the history of Cambodian politics that gives any assurance that the consequences of the transfer of power will not be personal and unpleasant.

And there is little in the current statements of Sihanouk and Rannariddh to re-assure the secessionists and the forces loyal to them. In his speech to the newly elected members of

Cambodia's National Assembly, Sihanouk said that "the problems of Cambodia can be solved by talks in the throne hall" (note he chose not to say "in the legislative assembly"), that if all of his "children" will listen to him, "papa" will show them what to do and which way to go.

Ranariddh told reporters some days earlier that Hun Sen is the "Shoo-Shoo" of Westerners and that they should learn that Cambodia has only one interlocutor, "and that is Ranariddh".

Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but there is no doubt that the assumed modes of exercising power which stand behind these statements, whatever they are, are not democratic.

If Sihanouk wants talks about Cambodia's future and the resolution of its problems to be done quietly and behind the scenes, or if Ranariddh becomes the sole focus for foreign relations with Cambodia, the worst fears of the secessionists will be realized.

The results of the election will be the creation of a new monopoly of power in Cambodia whose focus will be either Ranariddh or Sihanouk.

There will be no room for another, even if lesser, independent focus of political power, the CPP.

The membership of CPP will survive politically on terms dictated by the "winning" party.

Most likely that will mean exclusion from politics, and what is unfortunately worse, exclusion from the "perks" of power, the exploitation of political position, normal in Cambodia, known as corruption elsewhere.

Both Sihanouk and Ranariddh have the stature to play the historical role similar to Juan Carlos in Spain, over-seeing the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Sadly, taking their statements at face-value, neither is pre-disposed to do so. Neither Chakrapong nor Sin Song nor their subordinates will have any incentive to re-align.

For the major actors in this potentially bloody drama government itself is not a necessary evil to be constrained by internal checks and balances.

Power is simply the capacity to control and to profit, to take care of those who are loyal.

But the debate in the Constituent Assembly could be both a period of self-education and a proof to doubters within Cambodia and without that there exists a commitment to build a new Cambodian politics on democratic principles and to reject the old Cambodian politics.

Though the individuals leading the partition may be finished in Cambodian politics, their subordinates and the forces who they control must be weaned away from them by the practical visible working out of democracy in the Constituent Assembly.

If real debates emerge in the Constituent Assembly, if the voice of CPP can be heard, in contradiction to that of FUNCINPEC and be seen to have weight and influence there may be some hope in convincing those break-away elements in the CPP that they can still have a say in how Cambodia will be governed.

They will eventually have to address the current connection between the exercise of political power and profit, but a useful first step is to practice politics by serious debate among independent parties which appeal to the interests of the Cambodian people.

In contrast, if Sihanouk's preference is followed, the position of the break-away elements will harden. Their worst fears will be confirmed.

If the participants in the debate need to be nudged in the right direction, two things
are worth considering. First, Vietnam's position, and second, UNTAC's potential influence.

Vietnam has already accepted the results of the election, but it needs in addition to make a strong and public commitment to the democratic process. Isolating the secessionists is in Vietnam's interest.

The situation is perfect for Khmer Rouge intervention.
Success will lead to political rehabilitation. In any case it could lead to civil
war. Cambodia and Vietnam need neither.

UNTAC's role in its remaining three months will be key. Potentially most powerful participant in the Cambodian drama, it is constrained by institutionalized inhibitions against addressing the never-ending sequence of near-intractable political problems in Cambodia by using military force against Cambodians. This is laudable self-restraint.

But UNTAC does have two major levers in addition to its capacity to bank-role the "existing administrative structures" and the military.

Whatever Cambodian government emerges will need international legitimacy and development aid, both of which UNTAC essentially controls access to.

Entering the community of nations as a full-fledged member will, aside from the economic benefits, aid Cambodia in settling its borders and in the longer run guaranteeing them.

But the most important role that UNTAC can now play is to nudge the participants in the Constituent Assembly in the direction of open democratic debate, it is toward this end that these considerable bargaining advantages can be allocated.

This may settle the partition problem without the question of military force being raised at all, and further the cause of democracy in Cambodia, not to say enhance the U.N.'s reputation tarnished a bit in the run-up to the elections.

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