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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Coalition partners cross swords

Coalition partners cross swords

coalition.jpg
coalition.jpg

POLITICAL tensions are set to continue between the ruling Cambodian People's Party

(CPP) and its coalition partner Funcinpec, despite the June 5 announcement by Khieu

Kanharith, the CPP's secretary of state at the Ministry of Information, of a pause

in verbal hostilities.

A former student at the Om Al Qura Institute, an Islamic school outside Phnom Penh, carries books away after the school was ordered closed by the government on May 28. All of its foreign teachers were expelled.

"The important thing now is that the top leaders of the two parties avoid attacking

each other," Kanharith told reporters. "If they still continue to attack

each other, there will no longer be a meeting among the 'Committee for Compromising'.

We are waiting for a few days to see if that will happen."

But Serey Kosal, an advisor to Funcinpec leader Prince Ranariddh, denied that any

'compromise committee' existed within his party, and said Kanharith's announcement

was made without consulting Funcinpec officials. He said the royalists would not

change course.

"We will not keep quiet. We will work toward our strategy to compete in the

election," he said.

Kanharith warned that would raise tensions.

"In the future if these two political parties confront each other, we will not

have peace. We seek a resolution that the two parties will let people come to vote

without violence," he said.

Funcinpec's co-Minister of Defense, Prince Sisowath Sirirath, responded with a more

conciliatory tone than Kosal.

"On Tuesday night Prince Ranariddh and Samdech Hun Sen spoke on the telephone

and everything has already been pacified. There is an understanding that this conflict

should not continue," he said.

Kanharith also countered Ranariddh's recent claim that he was without any armed support,

saying that "each party has its own armed force".

"Half of the provincial governors are controlled by Funcinpec and they control

the military and police," he said.

That comment drew a strong rebuke from Funcinpec's Mu Sochua, the Minister for Women's

and Veterans' Affairs.

"That's wrong, totally wrong," Sochua said. "A party cannot have a

military, [and] we certainly do not have one. The military belongs to the people

to protect the sovereignty of the country."

The simmering tensions came to a head after a striking display of CPP power over

the media on June 3. Every television station in the land simultaneously broadcast

a two hour pro-CPP documentary on the conflict between the parties in 1997, in which

hundreds died.

The documentary accused Funcinpec of engaging in illegal negotiations with the Khmer

Rouge, and said the royalists had been secretly importing weapons. The clear implication

was that the CPP acted before the royalists could act against it.

The documentary was in response to the Funcinpec's description of the July 1997 events

as a 'coup', and came after several weeks of escalating verbal attacks by the party

ahead of the campaign season.

On May 25, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Funcinpec of duplicity, saying: "They

are holding our hands while stepping on our legs". On June 3, the pro-CPP newspaper

Rasmei Kampuchea ran an article warning that if Funcinpec did not "clarify its

statement" behind the events of July 1997, the CPP would do the job itself.

Speaking to the Post a few days before the media blitzkrieg, Serey Kosal said that

criticizing the CPP in the approach to the election was part of a long-held Funcinpec

strategy.

"People in Phnom Penh have never understood our strategy. Why has the Prince

kept quiet? Because the time was not right," he said. "Now the time is

right for us to speak out.

"We've worked with the CPP for two mandates already, so we've learned about

the good and the dangerous parts. So now we are speaking out because there are two

months more to the election," he said.

But Kanharith criticized that strategy.

"They want to gain votes by attacking the CPP, but I don't understand it because

they are also part of the government," he said. "If Funcinpec is smart,

they'll tell people that. If nobody liked the government then nobody would vote for

the CPP."

But the opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, dismissed the entire conflict as "theater"

designed to make Funcinpec look like a real opposition. He said that the Cambodian

people would see through the "trick".

After 1997, said Rainsy, the two parties came together in a coalition despite the

conflict. He predicted the coalition would not split this time either, "because

Hun Sen has too many things to keep Ranariddh at his disposal".

Funcinpec's Kosal said his party's tough stance was anything but theater. The conflict

was real, he said on June 1, and was set to continue.

"Hun Sen uses Sam Rainsy and Prince Chakrapong to attack us and destroy the

monarchy," he said of the CPP's strategy. "When Rainsy attacks them they

don't say anything, but for us if we speak they try to take action."

Over the past two weeks the parties have used their respective media outlets to escalate

the level of verbal conflict.

Ta Prohm radio, which is aligned with Funcinpec, and Bayon TV, which is CPP-linked,

have traded attacks on each other in the most overt display of verbal hostilities

seen in years.

Ta Prohm has been particularly vocal about the 'Pagoda Boys', a student group with

strong CPP leanings. In the past the Pagoda Boys have been identified by other students,

and even the CPP's Chea Sophara, as being paid thugs on the payroll of senior CPP

figures: Senior Minister Sok An and intelligence chief Mol Roeup.

According to The Asia Foundation's most recent democracy survey, one-quarter of the

electorate gets its information from television and one-fifth from radio. That compares

to just 9 percent who regularly read a newspaper.

All eyes are now turned to Prince Ranariddh, who is expected to return to Cambodia

from France around June 12.

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