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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's Royalists on a slippery slope

Cambodia's Royalists on a slippery slope

ALL is not well in Funcinpec, the Royalist party founded by ex-King Norodom Sihanouk.

And that is putting it mildly. At last count, all was most seriously unwell in the

party that Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, inherited from his father.

An extraordinary congress on October 18 voted to remove Ranariddh as party leader

on the grounds that he was no longer discharging the duties expected of him, that

he was away from the country all too often and that he was unable to work with Prime

Minister Hun Sen.

These are allegations Ranariddh would have difficulty dismissing offhand, as he is

wont to do. The unprecedented move by a strong faction in the party was immediately

declared illegal by loyalists who pointed out, not without merit, that under the

Funcinpec constitution, Ranariddh was president for life.

There was even greater surprise that the congress had chosen Keo Puth Rasmey, Cambodia's

Ambassador to Germany, as the replacement. Rasmey is Ranariddh's brother-in-law by

marriage to Princess Arun, Ranariddh's Royal half-sister. Rasmey is a mild, amiable

and hard-working diplomat, respected by his peers but a highly unlikely candidate

for leader of such a fractious party.

The congress very cleverly did not throw out Ranariddh - they just kicked him upstairs

as "historic leader," a high-sounding position with little power. They

also unveiled a new party logo similar to the previous one but with Ranariddh's portrait

removed.

The widespread speculation is that the congress, the "ouster" of Ranariddh

and the selection of Rasmey were the brainchild of Funcinpec secretary-general Nhiek

Bun Chhay, a former defence minister whose faction is close to Hun Sen's Cambodian

People's Party (CPP). Two others closely associated with Bun Chhay in this initiative

are the wily politician and psychological warfare strategist Lu Lay Sreng and the

urbane Prince Sisowath Sirirath, himself a former defence minister and ambassador

to the United Nations. Both were chosen as deputies to Rasmey.

The general consensus is that with Ranariddh's removal as president, if that comes

to pass, power in the party will shift from the president/chairman to the secretary-general.

Bun Chhay will be the effective leader.

A Cambodian observer welcomed the move as a shrewd "coup" by the Nhiek

Bun Chhay faction to provoke Ranariddh into resigning from the party, the one legal

way for his removal, thereby offering an opportunity for the new leaders to prepare

for the coming elections. The observer rightly notes that it was not in the CPP's

interest to see the demise of Funcinpec as that would only strengthen the hand of

the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

Apart from the legality of it all, the latest turn of events is a sad commentary

on Funcinpec, which has now become almost a non-party. In the United Nations-sponsored

elections in 1993, it won more seats than the CPP but it did progressively worse

in the following two elections. The irony is that the Royals are being increasingly

sidelined in what has hitherto been a Royalist party. A Royal reaction to this development

was a call by Prince Sisowath Thomico, a close relative of Sihanouk, for Ranariddh

to disband Funcinpec and for its members to join his newly formed Sangkum Jatiniyum

Front (Alliance of the National Community).

Thomico called on the government to be dissolved as well and for power to be given

back to Sihanouk, a proposal Ranariddh later echoed. Hun Sen's angry retort, in vintage

Hun Sen style, was that those planning such a "constitutional coup" had

better prepare their coffins first!

Former King Norodom Sihanouk, who like Hun Sen understands power play, not only distanced

himself promptly from his relative's lofty hopes but also cut off the latter's monthly

stipend from the Royal purse. This has not, however, prevented isolated calls for

the Royals to either move out of politics or to move out of Royalty.

Hun Sen's "coffin" outburst was the latest indicator that the cosy relationship

he had with Ranariddh following the formation of the coalition government in July

2004 had deteriorated badly.

While Funcinpec is rushing downhill in a hurry, the opposition SRP, which stands

to gain most by its disappearance, is only just getting out of the doldrums after

Sam Rainsy's lengthy self-exile.

It is beginning to make noises again in preparation for the April 2007 commune council

elections and the 2008 general election. Although the party is weaker now than when

it went into elections in 2003, it is the only credible opposition at the moment.

Hun Sen's CPP, on the other hand, has been going from strength to strength. Most

importantly, it no longer needs Funcinpec or the SRP to form a government. Whereas

in the previous three elections a two-thirds majority was required to form a government,

a recent amendment now makes this possible with a simple majority. The CPP can comfortably

fulfil this new requirement.

As for Funcinpec, the prognosis will depend on Ranariddh's reaction to this realignment

of forces in which the Bun Chhay faction is growing stronger. If no compromises are

reached and factionalism continues, a disillusioned electorate might bring an end

to the party's misery.

* Mathews, a former Singapore Ambassador to Cambodia, is currently a Visiting Research

Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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