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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Funcinpec wrestles with its future

Funcinpec wrestles with its future

F uncinpec - going through a renaissance, pragmatically making sacrifices for the

sake of peace, or terminally ill? As Funcinpec meets at a congress in Phnom Penh,
Jason Barber looks at the state of the party.

WHILE Hun Sen was drawing up a government decree to reintroduce the January 7 holiday,

fellow Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh was hurriedly planning a trip overseas.

Ranariddh, less than eager to sign the decree, was on his way to Pochentong airport

when Hun Sen learnt of his movement. An aide of Hun Sen's, clutching the holiday

decree, was dispatched to intercept Ranariddh before he could leave the country.

Ranariddh signed.

The incident - as retold by Ranariddh in private explanations to Funcinpec officials

- again highlighted the cracks in the government coalition.

In what seemed a familiar story, Funcinpec buckled under the weight of its Cambodian

People's Party (CPP) partner. Hun Sen got his way, and his day, while Ranariddh went

abroad.

The Jan 7 holiday, Hun Sen emphasized, was meant to celebrate the 1979 ousting of

the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. But to the "handful of people" with "some

hesitation" about the holiday, as Hun Sen said in one speech, it also symbolized

the start of a 10-year Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia - which Funcinpec fought.

Whatever was celebrated on Jan 7 - spent by Ranariddh in Singapore, missing the fanfare

and speeches at Phnom Penh's new Hun Sen Park and at CPP headquarters - it didn't

seem to be Cambodia's much-vaunted "national reconciliation" and "political

stability".

Perhaps what the holiday most importantly marked, according to some in Funcinpec

at least, was a drawing of the lines between Funcinpec and CPP.

The entire Funcinpec steering committee, bar Ranariddh, sent an unprecedented letter

of concern to the King about the holiday. Ranariddh himself later seemed to rediscover

a desire for the political limelight, denouncing Vietnamese encroachments on Khmer

land as an "invasion" - a sure reminder of the 1979 occupation which CPP

was borne out of.

Is Funcinpec fighting back, determined to restamp its identity on the public mind,

awakened to the realization that its future is by no means secure? Some would like

to think so.

"There are limits to concessions," says one Funcinpec MP. "We cannot

negotiate over principles. Sure, we can negotiate over positions, policies, facts,

but principles should not be touched."

The Jan 7 holiday, says the MP, "touches on the identity of Funcinpec itself."

The MP maintains that Funcinpec did stand up to CPP over its request to bring back

the holiday - by giving what he terms a "half no, half yes" answer.

Concessions were made by CPP, he says: the holiday decree was signed by the Prime

Ministers, not by the King, and Jan 7 was not made a "national day" like

Nov 9, Independence Day.

Why didn't Funcinpec - and the King, who officially proposed the holiday's revival

at CPP's request - just say no?

"To keep them quiet, smooth," says the MP, noting the earlier arrest and

exile of Funcinpec secretary-general Prince Norodom Sirivudh.

"At any time the CPP can show their attitude of violence. We understand that

again this is a kind of sacrifice. It was based on the wisdom that if we didn't,

we could expect a lot more disasters."

Whatever the circumstances of Jan 7's reinstatement - and certainly some suggest

there was more to the story - this MP, at least, believes Funcinpec was the

ultimate winner.

"Since Jan 7, Funcinpec is refreshed, we have reiterated the position, the identity

of Funcinpec. We were rearmed, morally speaking."

Other Funcinpec members are a little less sure, and less forgiving to Ranariddh.

"Who cares about that story [of Ranariddh trying to avoid signing the decree]?"

said one. "If he didn't want to sign it, he shouldn't have signed it.

"If Ranariddh is a man who has his own principles, why now? Why not before?"

One answer is that now is a good time. Funcinpec's identity, its past and its future,

will be on the minds of all who attend this week's party congress in Phnom Penh,

which opened yesterday, the 15th anniversary of Funcinpec's creation as an anti-Vietnamese

resistance front.

Funcinpec has much to think about. For the party which won the last election, the

road to power has been full of potholes. In making "major political sacrifices

for the sake of peace and national reconciliation" - as a party statement in

January put it - Funcinpec is perceived as failing to secure equal weight with CPP.

It has lost several popular figures: Sam Rainsy, banished from party and parliament

after internal ructions; and Norodom Sirivudh, dispatched into exile in the most

controversial of circumstances.

Now, it seems, it is official: Funcinpec is fighting for its very existence. The

recent pronouncements by King Norodom Sihanouk painted a grim future for the party

he founded: CPP likely to win the next election, Ranariddh to become King - with

the support of Hun Sen - upon Sihanouk's death, and Funcinpec destined to "disappear."

Controversy and political fireworks are unlikely at the party congress, particularly

with Sirivudh, a Ranariddh rival, languishing in France. One party cynic suggested

the main thing on the agenda would be a lot of clapping.

But with the King's message ringing in their ears, Funcinpec MPs, officials and the

party faithful who want to remain that way will be looking for reassurances that

they have a future.

They will no doubt get them from Ranariddh but he is unlikely to reveal much of what

his vision, however firm, for the future is. Funcinpec is likely to go on as it has

so far - putting its faith, and hoping that its not blind, in Ranariddh.

One MP, speaking of "very frustrated" elements within Funcinpec, says:

"Prince Ranariddh advises us that he has his own policy. He asks that Funcinpec

members have confidence in him, so we give him the opportunity and we will see what

happens in '98."

Another MP saw promising signs, saying: "We have heard for a long time that

Ranariddh cannot give what we need to meet our expectations, that he can understand

our frustrations.

"Maybe this is the first time he can show part of his strategy," he said

of Ranariddh's apparent desire recently to distinguish Funcinpec from CPP. "This

can make him stronger."

Publicly, the Funcinpec-CPP coalition is firm, with Ranariddh and Hun Sen committed

to a coalition after the next election - and until the year 2010 according to Hun

Sen. The key question is how the parties will campaign for votes.

Sirivudh, before his exile, spoke out against any "pre-arrangement" for

Funcinpec and CPP to compete less than vigorously against each other.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to any such arrangement is the Constitutional requirement

that there be only one Prime Minister after the 1998 election: a convincing reason

for the parties, and leaders, to vie strongly for votes.

"Technically speaking, it's not possible," said one MP of any prior agreement.

"How do you get one PM?"

Funcinpec is said to be committed, win or lose, whether Ranariddh is Prime Minister

or not, to continuing a coalition after the election. If it wins, it might have little

choice - as after the 1993 election - but can the same be said for Hun Sen?

"We have to study the alternatives now," says the MP. "If we win,

no problem, we continue with a coalition.

"If we lose, first we have to accept it and second, we have to work together.

But whether Hun Sen will accept a coalition or not? That's why we hope to continue

good relations between Funcinpec and CPP now."

Loy Sim Chheang, Sirivudh's replacement as Funcinpec's secretary-general, says the

party's campaign strategy has yet to be decided.

The closest the party congress will get to considering that will be to endorse the

principles of fully respecting the Constitution, allowing foreign electoral observers

and seeking neutrality from the police and military during the election period.

"Myself, I think just to protect democracy is a good wish for us already,"

said Loy Sim Chheang. "If we don't care for this regime, it will collapse."

Most observers expect the Funcinpec-CPP alliance to survive for the foreseeable future

but there is skepticism that the "marriage of convenience", as one put

it, will last to see too many anniversaries.

Some suggest the bedfellows have an inherent distrust of each other - a "those

who left and those who stayed behind" attitude toward the Vietnamese occupation

- which must be overcome for national reconciliation.

Much of Funcinpec's hierarchy are returnees who spent years abroad, while CPP's ran

the country after the Vietnamese invasion. Is there an "us and them" attitude?

"From the Cambodian people, no," says one Funcinpec MP, a former refugee.

"Everybody has some family outside Cambodia, so they don't reject us.

"But from the [CPP] politicians, yes, in their attitude and in their laws. You

can't talk about the resistance, you can't talk about the CPP occupation - everything

against the identity of the CPP is banned by them.

"While any party tries to preserve their identity, it's difficult to get unity

that way."

The MP says some in CPP perceive returning overseas Khmers as people coming back

to demand big salaries and tell them what to do.

"But they bring back money and expertise. It's a kind of an investment to me,

but the government side doesn't talk about it like that. We have to integrate the

Cambodian community overseas, otherwise there is no national reconciliation."

One Phnom Penh diplomat believes the Sirivudh affair, for instance, was a warning

to a variety of people, including "foreign passport holders" - a category

which includes Sam Rainsy and, ultimately, Ranariddh, who holds a French passport.

Though Sirivudh was an ironic target - he has no other citizenship - the message

was clear to those with links to other countries: you can go back there.

There have also long been rumors - never expressed officially, and unlikely to be

as long as Ranariddh is a Prime Minister - that CPP wants dual-citizenship Cambodians

to have to give up one passport by law.

Other politicians and observers say Funcinpec can by no means take the high moral

ground in any debate about returnees. They accuse some in Funcinpec of being more

interested in status and money than concern for Cambodia.

One observer, associated with Funcinpec dissidents, says senior government officials

who held "jobs of no station" during their time abroad enjoy and expect

to be "treated as Kings" in senior positions in Cambodia.

As long as they are interested in the job perks, and know they can return abroad

if needed, they will never be committed to Cambodia, according to the observer.

"You only fight back if you have your back against the wall. If you have a hole

in the wall [the opportunity to live in another country], you know you can go whoomph

through the hole at any time.

"The only difference [if they leave] is that they will have a lot more money

than when they arrived."

There is some pressure within Funcinpec for it to clean up its nest.

"Funcinpec needs to be refreshed, to remove some bad elements, some corrupt

people. There needs to be a kind of repainting," says one MP.

A failure to do that only adds to the frustrations of good Funcinpec officials, who

could turn their backs on Cambodia.

"Before, when I came back to Cambodia I felt proud to put my hands, my head

and my heart into being a part of the development of Cambodia," says one Funcinpec

returnee. "Now I feel I have wasted my time.

"For those who have high hopes for Cambodia, and those that can support their

standard of living here, they will stay. The people who don't have high hopes any

more, and have difficulty in their standard of living, they will pack their bags

and leave."

A true test of Funcinpec members and supporters' loyalty and faith will come in the

election campaign.

One party member says that, during the 1993 election, "I borrowed money, which

I still haven't paid back, to help Funcinpec. You think I'm going to make that sacrifice

again? I cannot.

"After the [1993] election, it's up to the leaders to decide how to run the

country. If they can't run the country, if they cannot rule the party, let them go

to hell."

Said one Funcinpec MP after Sirivudh's arrest in November: "There is no deal

between CPP and Funcinpec. We accept the reality - the Paris Peace Agreement is finished."

Funcinpec was "forgetting our own objectives" out of concern for national

reconciliation, he said, adding: "You cannot expect better things by destroying

yourselves."

But what's the alternative? Can Funcinpec afford to stay in a coalition with CPP.

More importantly, can it afford not to? As the election nears, Ranariddh faces his

toughest test, trying to allay the frustrations of his members and work out the best

to secure Funcinpec's future.

It the end, it may well be more than the identities of Funcinpec or CPP, but that

of Cambodia itself, at stake.

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