A KEY test of the balance of power within the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) looms
at a party congress due late this month, amid escalating tensions between rival blocs.
While the recent absence of Hun Sen from Cambodia sparked rampant rumors of imminent
military clashes between key party figures, senior CPP officials have publicly and
privately discounted the possibility of violence.
But diplomats and other observers said there are indications of increased pressures
within the CPP, with all eyes on a scheduled Oct 24-26 meeting of the party's 153-member
The closed-door meeting will provide an arena for debate over Hun Sen's July coup
against Funcinpec Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh - which has seen Cambodia
being shunned internationally and stung economically - by the core of the party.
Most significantly, according to political watchers, it should provide a gauge of
the ability of Hun Sen - and his biggest perceived rival, Chea Sim, the CPP president
- to strengthen control over the party.
Anti-Hun Sen elements of the party are mooting a possible bid by the Second Prime
Minister and CPP vice-president to reshuffle the powerful standing committee, or
politburo. If successful, they say, Hun Sen may move on to challenge Chea Sim's presidency
of the party.
But it is uncertain that Hun Sen will have the confidence to seek Chea Sim's removal;
to do so would risk a Chea Sim counter-attack on Hun Sen's position as vice-president.
Several CPP sources predicted that neither side would feel bold enough to mount a
serious assault. "If you cross the line, you have to be sure that you would
win," said one. "The end result [of the congress] may be to keep the status
Hun Sen supporters within the party insisted that no changes to the 20-member standing
committee, which is elected by the central committee, were planned.
"This congress is an ordinary one; we will not change or add any new members,"
said one official close to Hun Sen.
According to CPP rules, the congress - a central committee plenum supposed to be
held twice a year - is not the proper forum for votes on the memberships of the central
or standing committees, or the party leadership posts.
"But Hun Sen has never respected the bylaws," complained another source,
explaining why a reshuffle bid by the CPP vice-president was still possible.
The plenum was to have been held next week but, because Deputy Prime Minister and
co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng will be away on a trip to Japan at the time, it
was delayed at the request of Chea Sim.
Sources said Hun Sen initially expressed reluctance to see the congress delayed but
eventually sent his agreement from abroad.
The Second Prime Minister himself was due to return to Cambodia Oct 9, with "everyone
watching his every move", as one observer put it, to see his reaction to the
instability in his absence.
An extraordinary number of rumors - even by Phnom Penh's usual standards - gripped
the capital in the days following Hun Sen's Sept 22 departure to visit Thailand,
France and the United Nations in New York.
Attention focused on perceived tensions between Sar Kheng - who is close to Chea
Sim - and the Director-General of the National Police, Hok Lundy. An admission by
Sar Kheng, the acting Prime Minister in Hun Sen's absence, that he knew who killed
Funcinpec official Ho Sok was widely interpreted as a threat to Lundy.
Meanwhile, supporters of Chea Sim and Sar Kheng - supposedly including the CPP's
"honorary president" Heng Samrin and the army Chief-of-General-Staff Ke
Kim Yan - were rumored to be preparing to mobilize troops.
Chea Sim moved Sept 27 to publicly deny the rumors, telling reporters outside the
National Assembly that "all this talk is contrary to the truth".
He spoke the same day as the newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea, widely considered to be
Hun Sen-influenced, carried a front page headline asking: "Is the Chea Sim group
to have a meeting to knock out Hun Sen?"
Chea Sim decried the rumor-mongering as an attempt by unspecified people to "affect
the political atmosphere, mainly to incite the CPP".
"Last night, the rumors said that Chea Sim had been arrested...some people phoned
me to ask [if it was true]," he said, laughing. "There is another rumor
that Heng Samrin is preparing soldiers to fight against Samdech Hun Sen... What reason
is there for Heng Samrin to organize troops against Hun Sen?"
Chea Sim said that despite rumors of a split within the CPP since before the 1993
election, the "three Samdechs" - himself, Hun Sen and Heng Samrin - were
"always united" in their leadership of the party.
Although ultimately the rumors proved most notable for their lack of substance -
there were no armed clashes - diplomats and political observers agreed there were
credible signs of growing pressures within the CPP.
Discontent over the international consequences of Hun Sen's military strike against
Funcinpec is cited as a key issue. Meanwhile, there is perceived unhappiness at Hun
Sen's rewarding of those who supported him in the coup, while maintaining a hardline
against anyone - inside or outside Cambodia - who questioned his authority and judgment.
CPP officials including Chea Sim and Sar Kheng, as well as Ke Kim Yan and other Royal
Cambodian Armed Forces chiefs, are widely reported to have cautioned Hun Sen against
his military ouster of Prince Ranariddh.
One CPP source said that some in the party had believed that, while a military overthrow
of Ranariddh would produce a short-term victory, the diplomatic, economic and electoral
consequences of such a move could produce a defeat for the CPP in the longer-term.
"There are clear indications that those who choose this [position] are right,"
he said. However, given Hun Sen's "you are with me or you are against me"
attitude toward his party, "being right, in this situation, is not very comfortable".
Hun Sen himself has threatened to quit the CPP if the party does not follow him.
In a Aug 18 speech in Sihanoukville, urging his party officials to support his 8-point
plan to crack-down on crime and improve security, he said: "I would rather walk
out on the CPP if all of you refuse to do what I say."
Implicitly proclaiming himself to be the party's biggest drawcard for voters, Hun
Sen declared that he would not let the CPP "play the Hun Sen card" if the
party did not listen to him.
CPP's strategy for the elections is expected to be the key issue for discussion at
the CPP plenum. "The congress will talk about the situation after the July event
and lay out the plan for the future," said one party official.
Others, however, predicted that Hun Sen would move to minimize any debate on the
wisdom or otherwise of his July military strike against Funcinpec. Focusing on the
elections, he is likely to stress the need for party unity - behind him as the party's
election candidate for Prime Minister.
While Chea Sim, Sar Kheng and other officials are reported to have verbally clashed
with Hun Sen in recent years, with the Second Prime Minister facing the allegation
that he is working more on behalf of himself than his party, their relationship has
never broken out into open conflict.
Political observers suggested that Hun Sen's political fortunes within the CPP were
now largely dependent on how he coped with the international pressures on him.
Several analysts agreed that Hun Sen was now in his worst position since July, besieged
by international rejection of his new regime, major cuts in foreign aid and investment,
a general economic down-turn which experts say is approaching crisis proportions,
and a guerrilla war waged by Funcinpec and Khmer Rouge resistance fighters.
The economic situation is widely seen as being most critical.
"For the Cambodian people, the international recognition itself means nothing
to them," said one Cambodian observer. "The fighting in the northwest doesn't
matter to them. The  election, knowing what happened in 1993, doesn't make
much sense to them in the political environment of today.
"What matters to Cambodians is the economic factor... This is really hurting
Cambodian lives. I think I can see discontent taking shape, and some of the CPP membership
themselves are not happy."