PRINCE Norodom Ranariddh returned to Cambodia this week - while his father the King
resolutely stayed away - to face what many observers see as a near impossible task
to bridge the divide with his co-Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Both Prime Ministers declared the coalition would go on until the 1998 election,
though Hun Sen pointedly said it would survive with or without Ranariddh.
Diplomats and political observers fear the coalition is crippled, wracked by dissent
and distrust and headed by Prime Ministers unable to effectively work together again.
"This is the end of the coalition. The question is how are they going to get
though the next two years?" said one Western diplomat.
With Hun Sen firmly in control, some observers questioned what concessions Ranariddh
will be asked to make - and what he would be willing to give - for the sake of some
form of unity.
Hun Sen publicly blamed Funcinpec for the army's failure to capture Pailin, and privately
threatened legal action against at least one of those he held responsible.
Political dissident Sam Rainsy returned to Phnom Penh predicting a "new deal"
in Cambodia politics, and advocating a greater role for King Norodom Sihanouk.
The King, meanwhile, eschewed a return to Phnom Penh, saying he would go to Beijing.
This was despite opposition from the Chinese, who privately urged he return home.
The King - still in France after delaying his return from a State visit there - announced
that due to "grave" health problems he would depart on May 18 for "several
months" in Beijing.
Diplomatic sources said the Chinese government - for the second time recently - had
opposed the King's retreat there. The first time was during the arrest and exile
of Prince Norodom Sirivudh last year.
Ranariddh, upon his arrival in Phnom Penh May 13, said the King was in good health
but "the atmosphere does not seem to be favorable" for him in Cambodia.
Ranariddh had been in France - at the same time as the King, Rainsy, Sirivudh and
a fellow exiled Prince, Norodom Chakrapong - for nearly three weeks.
On his return, Ranariddh said he would seek negotiations with Hun Sen's Cambodian
People's Party (CPP) "at the highest level possible".
He welcomed Hun Sen's support of a continued coalition government, and said he had
no intention of removing Funcinpec from the National Assembly.
"We do not have any will to do something against the Constitution," said
Ranariddh, who in March threatened to force an early election unless CPP gave Funcinpec
a greater share of government power.
Hun Sen has accused Funcinpec of plotting unconstitutional moves by seeking an early
In a speech two days before Ranariddh's return, Hun Sen sent a blunt message to his
co-Prime Minister and effectively cast assertions on Funcinpec's loyalty to its leader.
Pledging the government coalition would last until after the next election, Hun Sen
said: "CPP and Funcinpec will cooperate... with or without Samdech Krom Preah
"Why? Because if Samdech Krom Preah decides to walk out of the government as
he said, there will be a group of Funcinpec remaining with me."
Saying that he had already prepared a list of ministers for a new government coalition,
Hun Sen said: "If five [Funcinpec ministers] leave the government, 15 others
will not because they have houses. If three [Funcinpec MPs] leave the Parliament,
50 others will not."
Turning to Funcinpec General Nhek Bun Chhay, who was present at the speech, Hun Sen
told him he could tell Ranariddh what he had said.
Bun Chhay apparently did that. He was one of several senior Funcinpec military officers
who traveled to Bangkok to meet Ranariddh before the Prime Minister returned to Cambodia.
Later, when Ranariddh stepped off the plane at Pochentong, Bun Chhay was by his side.
In an earlier speech, Hun Sen turned his sights on Funcinpec for the failure of the
government's dry-season campaign against the Khmer Rouge.
Complaining that the army should have captured Pailin by now, he said the political
storm in Phnom Penh had helped to "award a great prize to the Khmer Rouge."
"Unfortunately, the political mistake, political decision of that political
party has had a tremendous impact on the frontline," he said in reference to
Funcinpec. "The troops are unable to proceed forward in this kind of situation."
Government, diplomatic and other sources say the Pailin offensive fell apart after
Ranariddh's public complaints about power-sharing.
They say distrust ran through CPP and Funcinpec military ranks, to the extent that
each side was worried about attack from the other, as well as from the Khmer Rouge.
Usually reliable sources told the Post that Hun Sen recently accused a senior Funcinpec
military officer of offenses including failure to engage the enemy. The officer was
also alleged to be involved in a suspected plot against Hun Sen's life.
According to a CPP official, two CPP Generals were sent to talk to the Funcinpec
officer - said to have 700-800 troops loyal to him in Phnom Penh - who had adamantly
denied the charges.
Hun Sen prepared an arrest order for the officer, which was signed by both Ministers
of Defense Tea Banh (CPP) and Tea Chamrath (Funcinpec), while Ranariddh was in France.
The order had been put before Ranariddh on his return, and his signature requested.
Senior advisers to Hun Sen and Ranariddh - as well as Tea Banh and Tea Chamrath -
emphatically denied to the Post that any such arrest had been sought or would be
"You create these words to cause friction," said an angry Tea Banh. "There
will be no such action... today or ever."
Earlier, a party for military officers from both parties was held at the home of
Chief of General Staff Ke Kim Yan (CPP) in an apparent bid to soothe tension.
Hun Sen is reliably reported to have privately expressed concern about possible Funcinpec-Khmer
Rouge cooperation if CPP and Funcinpec were to come to a military clash.
Several sources said Hun Sen was concerned about Siem Reap, which he feared Funcinpec
could gain control of, possibly with the help of KR defectors whose loyalty to the
government is questioned by CPP.
"The so-called Khmer Rouge defector units, for the time being everybody accepts
they are defectors, even though there are more and more doubts that they are defectors,"
said a CPP official.
Pro-CPP newspaper Chakroval reported last week that a Funcinpec "secession"
of Siem Reap - with the involvement of some Phnom Penh military elements - was expected
"between May 10-15."
A senior Funcinpec military commander in Siem Reap is said to have declined requests
to come to Phnom Penh; two sources said military officers beneath him were recently
changed to try to isolate him.
Meanwhile, there was a security scare last week - which led one Western embassy in
Phnom Penh to informally warn against travel to Siem Reap - allegedly involving a
group of 18 KR. The group reportedly approached Siem Reap town but later left without
While there is no evidence of any Funcinpec-KR collusion, it is clear that CPP fears
"I don't think at this stage that anybody knows," said the CPP official
on potential Funcinpec-KR cooperation.
"But CPP believes there was a [recent] meeting at the highest level of Funcinpec
and the Khmer Rouge, and that there is some inter-connection between Rainsy, Ranariddh,
the King, the Khmer Rouge and Thailand and China.
"Whether this is the reality, this is what the CPP perception is."
Rainsy, Khmer Nation Party leader and the expelled MP of Siem Reap, agreed that there
were doubts about the loyalty of Funcinpec and the KR defectors in the province.
"It's a blurred line, particularly in Siem Reap. I don't know about the rest
of the country.
"The defectors in Siem Reap have kept an autonomous status. They protect Funcinpec.
They cannot be said to be Khmer Rouge, they are defectors [but] they still have suspicion
of CPP. But with Funcinpec, they have known each other for a long time. Some of them
fought together for years."
Rainsy - a vocal critic of the war against the KR and a supporter of political negotiations
with them - denied that he or Funcinpec had hidden motives for not wanting the rebel
group to be weakened too much.
"Hun Sen will accuse me far more directly than what you have just said. But
since this war cannot be won militarily by the government, it is in the interests
of the country that we find a political solution.
"It's common sense. Otherwise, why continue to fight and have this devastation
of lives? This is our language - the language of reason. I don't want to be accused
of having any second [ulterior] motives."
Rainsy, who returned to Cambodia two days before Ranariddh, wasted little time in
attacking Hun Sen, accusing him of planning to "topple Ranariddh from Funcinpec's
He said Hun Sen would not hesitate to use any means to encourage "a few Funcinpec
renegades" to organize a rival Funcinpec.
Rainsy would not comment on any meetings between himself, the King, Ranariddh, Sirivudh
and Chakrapong in Paris, but commented that their presence was "not all pure
He did say that Chakrapong, a former CPP member until his exile for the failed July
1994 coup, had told him of a recent "approach" by the CPP to permit him
to return to Cambodia.
Asked which political camp Chakrapong was now loyal to, Rainsy said that Ranariddh,
Sirivudh and Chakrapong, as members of the Royal family, "all know that Hun
Sen is now knocking at the King, at the Monarchy.
"They all know he is moving toward absolute power and they must react. There
is a unity of view that the monarchy is in danger and that Hun Sen will eliminate
Rainsy urged a union of "non-communist" political forces to oppose Hun
Sen and seek "drastic change" in Cambodian politics.
Asked whether, ironically, he included the Maoist-inspired KR as a potential force
against Hun Sen and the CPP, he said: "This does not include the Khmer Rouge.
"We don't believe in communists turning into liberals. This applies to the Khmer
Rouge in Pailin as well as the former Khmer Rouge such as Hun Sen and Chea Sim.
"At the first stage, we want the non-communists to form a strong core and then
at the second stage, any political forces can join us...
"Then we will make overtures to CPP first and then to the Khmer Rouge, or to
the two communist factions at the same time. We will be the bridge between the two
communist factions, the two extremes. This has always been the dream of Funcinpec,
of the King."
Asked whether he hoped for a "non-communist' alliance to contest the 1998 election,
he said that because of doubts about the fairness of the election, "we must
not base our strategy on that election alone."
"What we are talking about is change before the election and forcing the political
leaders to accept a political solution.
"Maybe it would be better for everybody to have a new deal for a short term.
Maybe it would be better to have the king - we all know he will not be able to play
a role for a very long time - to play a leading role now."
About the Constitution's ban on the King playing a political or government role,
he said: "If there is an agreement, everything can be adapted to the situation.
The Constitution is not something like Angkor Wat, that you cannot touch or amend."