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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Back from the brink, for now

Back from the brink, for now

HEAVING a collective sigh of relief, foreign donors have rediscovered their appetite

for Cambodian elections after Hun Sen approved a Royal pardon for Prince Norodom

Ranariddh.

But it remains far from certain that the Prince is assured of getting his name on

the ballot.

The pardon was granted by King Norodom Sihanouk from Beijing on March 21, annulling

the 30-year jail sentence and $54 million compensation order handed down to the Prince

at the end of his second in absentia trial in Phnom Penh three days earlier.

The Second Prime Minister agreed to the reprieve after last minute to-ing and fro-ing

between him and King Sihanouk, in which the King forced him to specifically seek

the unconditional pardon in writing.

While the undisputed Cambodian strongman may have suffered a major setback - and

the prospect of free and fair elections gained a major step forward - analysts and

CPP loyalists suggested that Hun Sen undoubtedly has aces up his sleeve.

They fully expected Ranariddh, should he go ahead with his claimed imminent return

to Cambodia, to find a minefield of obstacles on the road toward running for election.

The most obvious potential barrier is the anti-Phnom Penh Funcinpec resistance forces

on the Thai border who fight in the Prince's name; the pardon does not cover two

resistance chiefs who were convicted along with Ranariddh. Under the law, Ranariddh

can be banned from the election if he is linked to armed insurgents.

With this and other cards yet to play, observers suggested Hun Sen's approval of

the pardon was a shrewd move with minimal loss to his side. By removing the biggest

obstacle to Ranariddh's return - the prospect of being thrown in jail upon arrival

- Hun Sen revived flagging international support for the elections.

The fortnight before the pardon saw several clear slaps to the face of foreign donors:

firstly, the surprise $54 million court order against Ranariddh, which the government

initially said would not be covered by any pardon; and secondly, revelations that

Phnom Penh had signed a $25.8 million contract with a private company to run the

polls if foreign election funding was pulled.

Following hard on the heels of the murders of two Funcinpec security officials in

Phnom Penh, the developments saw the internationally-supported election process looking

its shakiest ever since the July coup. The second largest expected election donor,

Japan - the author of a much-vaunted peace plan supposed to open the door for Ranariddh

- privately threatened to "reconsider" its aid.

The day before Hun Sen asked for the pardon, a well-placed source linked to the CPP

predicted that Hun Sen would become more reasonable toward the world to avoid further

embarrassment of Japan, to whom he had made pledges.

Acknowledging the slaps in the face to Japan and other donors, the source said: "So

now we slap people. [But] don't do it anymore, don't go too far. We can't go into

further isolation. This is really a testing period."

"Now is the limit of what we can do. Now we have to soften," he said. "If

we can soften a little, we can only win more support from all those friendly parties."

The next day, Hun Sen's signing of a letter to the King seeking a full pardon for

Ranariddh, however, instantly eased the burgeoning anxieties of the diplomatic community.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan lauded the pardon in a March 23 statement as "a

major step towards the normalization of the situation in Cambodia. It is hoped that

it will significantly improve the climate for free and fair elections".

One Western diplomat in Phnom Penh noted that Hun Sen came across as the victor.

"Hun Sen has come out looking like a real democrat by requesting Ranariddh's

pardon. Now he can point to this request and show donors that he is not obstructing

the Japan plan, election progress."

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadaaki Numata, clearly giving credit to the

King, said in Tokyo: "What King Sihanouk did... will go a long way in fostering

a climate for Prince Ranariddh to go home and participate in the election."

He added that: "The important thing is that free and fair elections will take

place in July," a sentiment echoed by other diplomats and observers.

"The issue is not whether [Rana-riddh] can return, but whether he can be a political

player on his return," said one diplomatic source. "The danger of the return

of Ranariddh is of the international political community patting their own back.

What is important is keeping an eye on the end goal. The end goal is not the return

of Ranariddh, the end goal is elections with some degree of integrity."

A senior CPP official, speaking on condition on anonymity, was blunt when asked of

Ranariddh's political prospects: "There are so many traps for Ranariddh if he

comes back. CPP lays traps everywhere - if you cross this one, you still have to

cross that one, and the next one."

In particular, he noted that "Article 6 of the Political Party Law is very clear:

if you have your own army and automous zones, you cannot run [in the election]".

Funcinpec resistance commander Nhek Bun Chhay and one of his aides, former Ranariddh

security chief Serey Kosal, were also convicted in absentia at the Mar 17-18 trial.

Bun Chhay earned a total of 24 years in prison on the same charges as the Prince

- importing weapons and colluding with the Khmer Rouge - and Kosal got 30 years for

collusion and the trafficking of Khmer artifacts.

Neither man was mentioned in the carefully-worded letter from Hun Sen to the King

which sought Ranariddh's pardon.

"Mr Hun Sen asked the King to grant the pardon to the Prince, not to us,"

Bun Chhay said by telephone from the Thai border March 25. But he added that "if

the Prince has received a pardon, pardons must follow for Serey Kosal and myself."

Bun Chhay supported the Japanese proposal's calls for a ceasefire between Phnom Penh

and resistance forces, and the reintegration of his forces into the Cambodian army,

but said that he expected trouble.

If the proposal was not fully met, "I will keep my soldiers like they are now.

I will not change any military orders," Bun Chhay said. "I believe that

there will be some more problems in talks on the military issue."

Some such issues were brought up during the March 24 visit of Cambodian Defense Minister

Tea Banh (CPP) to Thailand in which he discussed "army issues" with Thai

Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, according to Bun Chhay who plans to meet with the

Thai minister next week.

Bun Chhay, the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF)

until he fled Phnom Penh during the July fighting, said he wanted his men to return

to their pre-July coup military positions. "I have already prepared my soldiers'

documents for their reintegration with RCAF," he said, adding that he would

not hand over lists of his soldiers' names and whereabouts until a deal was struck

with Phnom Penh.

In the meantime, Bun Chhay has reported government reinforcements massing near his

troops along the Thai border, and he expressed fears the fragile ceasefire may crumble.

In Phnom Penh, Khieu Kanharith, a CPP spokesman and Secretary of State for Information,

said he does not see an immediate resolution to the military standoff along the border,

but he denied that an attack by Hun Sen loyalists was imminent.

Of Nhek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal, Kanharith said that "they say they will continue

to fight because they have not received a pardon".

Asked why they had not been granted Royal pardons, he said that "up until now

they have not asked for a pardon", adding that perhaps their wives could write

to seek them.

Ranariddh adviser Kong Vibol said by phone from Bangkok March 25 that the issue of

pardons for the resistance chiefs was being considered, but he acknowledged that

no one has clearly asked for them.

If no pardons are forthcoming for Bun Chhay and Kosal - or if Hun Sen delays giving

his approval - observers noted that Ranariddh would be left in a prickly situation:

renounce the Funcinpec resistance, and say he has no control over them, or stand

by them and risk being denied the right to register as an election candidate.

Political observers have long suggested that Article 6, a controversial addition

to the Political Party Law, was written with Ranariddh in mind.

Japanese Embassy First Secretary Kazuhiro Nakai told the Post the inclusion of Article

6 led his country to include ceasefire and reintegration clauses in its Four Pillars

proposal.

But some critics suggest that the lack of a clear plan to deal with Nhek Bun Chhay,

in particular, leaves Phnom Penh with ample opportunity to block, or at least delay,

Ranariddh's ability to return, register as a candidate and begin to campaign.

Opposition politician Sam Rainsy said a defense on the issue has already been drawn

up, as previously stated by Bun Chhay: that Funcinpec has no private army, but that

the RCAF was "split" by the July coup.

Rainsy, who is also a lawyer, has gone to great effort to predict and undermine several

other potential obstacles to the Prince's participation in elections. He has filed

several criminal lawsuits against Hun Sen to discredit the use of criminal or civil

cases to prevent candidates from joining the political campaign. Rainsy expects to

lose the cases, which include lawsuits on behalf of the widows of a number of Funcinpec

military officials believed executed following the July coup, but he hopes to highlight

what he calls the CPP-control of the courts.

Some analysts suggest that one CPP option to hinder or block Ranariddh involves orchestrating

a civil case against the Funcinpec leader, ostensibly to be filed by alleged victims

of his troops before, during or after the July fighting. The government could claim

it has no part in the case; a Royal amnesty for such a civil matter could be harder

for Ranariddh to secure, and it would certainly be time-consuming as elections near.

Similarly, if Ranariddh returns to rebuild his party, criminal cases could be filed

alleging ongoing contact between Ranariddh loyalists and Funcinpec guerrilla forces

or the KR.

A last resort still open to Hun Sen, according to the party official who spoke anonymously,

is to attempt to get the National Assembly to pass the much-threatened law banning

Royal family members from politics. Twenty-seven Assembly members have signed such

a petition in the past.

Ultimately, as one Asian diplomat remarked: "Why would Hun Sen let [Ranariddh]

come back [and run in the polls]? The events of July 5-6 would be meaningless and

the $450 million [in lost aid and investment] would be lost, for nothing. One way

or another, it will get stuck. Somewhere."

Another key issue for the Prince, according to supporters who are planning his return,

is his personal safety, particularly if he intends to travel around the country to

campaign.

Prince Ranariddh, who has repeatedly said he can never again work with Hun Sen, reportedly

told Rainsy in a recent phone conversation that the final act is coming in his long-running

political battle with the Second Prime Minister who deposed him. "Prince Ranariddh

told me that 'If I am alive, it must mean Hun Sen is dead. If Hun Sen is alive, then

Ranariddh is dead'."

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