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
"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
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
"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
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.