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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt moves to quell tension

Govt moves to quell tension

AFTER two weeks of political feuding, rival troop movements and rampant rumor-mongering

in the capital, the ruling parties' top police and military officials moved to douse

the prospect of open warfare.

"Cambodia belongs to all of us. We have to take care of it," the eight

most senior army and security officials said in a joint declaration aimed at ensuring

the neutrality of the armed forces.

The statement came at an Apr 29 parley of some 600 government, provincial, military

and police officials at Phnom Penh's Chatomuk Theater. The meeting was called by

the so-called Joint Commission for Abnormal Conflict Resolution, made up of the Ministers

of Interior and Defense, and the chiefs of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the

National Police.

Prime Ministers Prince Norodom Ranariddh (Funcinpec) and Hun Sen (the Cambodian People's

Party) approved the meeting - and a large party afterwards - but did not attend.

Warning that the political crisis could destroy Cambodia's "fragile" democracy,

the commission said that an outbreak of fighting "will produce no winner and

the Cambodian people will be the ones who lose".

The statement specifically said that the alliance between Funcinpec and CPP "is

still valid".

Co-Minister of Interior and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng (CPP), in a speech to

the meeting, said: "We now have a coalition government. What is the need for

us to create problems in order to form another coalition government? We should strengthen

this coalition government."

Antagonism between the Prime Ministers had earlier risen to unprecedented heights

- with many observers, including King Norodom Sihanouk, predicting the collapse of

the government - after Hun Sen backed an internal revolt within Ranariddh's Funcinpec


Hun Sen actively enlisted the support of Funcinpec MPs in an apparent bid to be in

a position to overthrow Ranariddh by vote of the National Assembly, but fell far

short of the necessary numbers.

Fueled by increasingly vitriolic public exchanges between the Prime Ministers, the

tension led to great concern that the government factions were at the brink of violence.

Both Funcinpec and CPP boosted troop numbers in Phnom Penh, according to Cambodian

and foreign sources. Both parties moved soldiers, and at times armored personnel

carriers, around the city, "to show the flag", as one diplomat put it.

The rumor mill seemed to be the biggest industry in Cambodia, as reports of imminent

coup attempts became commonplace. Funcinpec publicly accused Hun Sen of plotting

a coup on Apr 15, the day Prince Norodom Sirivudh unsuccessfully tried to come back

to Cambodia. Days later, Ranariddh personally told Western diplomats that his co-Prime

Minister was planning another coup - and gave the date and time - which never eventuated.

Hun Sen, in a speech the day before the Joint Commission met, expressed what many

observers believed was the reality: "What is the use of holding a coup d'état?...

I am holding power legally now."

Hun Sen added that if he decided to hold a coup, "it can hardly be prevented"

by anyone. Most military observers agreed that CPP forces were stronger in Phnom

Penh, but that Funcinpec had enough troops to turn any confrontation into a major


A small group of renegade Funcinpec Members of Parliament and officials sparked the

latest political crisis by challenging Ranariddh's leadership. Headed by Minister

of State and MP Ung Phan, the breakaway was launched Apr 15, the day Sirivudh had

been due to return.

Two days later, the group attracted its most notable recruit - the Funcinpec governor

of Siem Reap, Toan Chay. He was joined by the Banteay Meanchey governor, Doung Khem,

and several officials from other provinces.

Ranariddh Apr 18 accused Hun Sen of masterminding the Funcinpec split, complaining

of "interference" in his party's internal affairs.

The next day, Hun Sen responded with a rare press conference at his heavily-guarded

Takhmau home in which he pledged "100 percent" support to the Funcinpec


An upbeat Hun Sen claimed that a total of 11 other Funcinpec MPs had signed a statement

of support for Phan, and that they would vote with CPP in the National Assembly -

giving his party a simple majority over Funcinpec and its allies.

He went on to say that if he could attract enough Funcinpec MPs to give CPP a two-thirds

majority in the assembly, he would be able to sack Funcinpec Ministers or remove

the parliamentary immunity of those who were suspected of crimes.

While saying that it was not his intention to remove Ranariddh as Prime Minister

by parliamentary vote, Hun Sen added that "if Funcinpec feel... the need for

change, they would receive our support".

It later emerged that Hun Sen had been bringing Funcinpec MPs to his house and urging

them to sign their support for Ung Phan.

One of them, Kandal MP Som Chanboth, said later that he had received a call from

fellow MP Ros Hean - a Phan supporter - asking him out for a cup of coffee.

"He said we would go to the President Restaurant but then he drove me to Hun

Sen's residence. There were bodyguards surrounding us.

"I signed... I was not forced to sign but I just wanted to get out of that place,"

said Chanboth, who added that was offered a $500 New Year's gift.

Chanboth was among eight of the 12 MPs cited by Hun Sen who, after later meeting

Prince Ranariddh, renounced their support for Ung Phan.

In a bizarre game of tug-of-war, with claims of intimidation of MPs being leveled

by officials from both sides, some of those eight later reaffirmed their loyalty

to Phan.

At Post press time, it appeared that five Funcinpec MPs were professing support for

the Funcinpec breakaway - Ung Phan, Ros Hean, Kong Sophat, Eam Ra and Men Sam Ean

- and another four had gone back to Ranariddh's side. The loyalties of the remaining

four were unclear.

Regardless, it appeared that Hun Sen - with CPP's 51 MPs supported by five Funcinpec

MPs, the Ieng Mouly faction of the BLDP and the sole MP of the Molinaka Party - would

have enough votes for a simple parliamentary majority over Funcinpec.

A simple majority would allow him to pass laws, such as long-awaited legislation

governing the administration of forthcoming commune and national elections. But a

majority of two-thirds of the National Assembly - or 80 MPs - is necessary to change

the government or amend the Constitution.

The National Assembly had been due to open a new session last Monday but it was canceled

at the insistence of Funcinpec.

Ung Phan, meanwhile, has opened offices of his group - calling themselves "The

Interim Committee for Compromise in Funcinpec" - in a villa near Olympic Stadium.

Som Chanboth and fellow Funcinpec MP Khun Pinop, who also initially signed a statement

of support for Phan, said they had been told the villa had been provided by prominent

businessman Teng Boon Ma.

Boon Ma - most famous for recently shooting the tire of a Royal Air Cambodge plane

- was out of the country and could not be contacted for comment. Ros Hean, a Phan

loyalist, denied that Boon Ma had given any property or money to the group. Hean

added that he hoped Boon Ma would do so, though, because "I don't have any money".

Meanwhile, Siem Reap governor Toan Chay - the de facto president of the Ung Phan

clique - said in an Apr 23 press conference that he might accept money from Hun Sen.

Railing against Ranariddh for leading Cambodia closer to bloodshed, a fiery Chay

said he wanted to ensure a peaceful coalition government.

As well as Banteay Meanchey governor Doung Khem, other Funcinpec provincial officials

who had backed the Ung Phan-Toan Chay gambit include Pursat third deputy governor

Ka Leang and Koh Kong third deputy governor Vann Kirirath.

Five Funcinpec members -including Ung Phan, Toan Chay and Doung Khem - have been

formally expelled from the party. But Hun Sen has warned that he will oppose any

bid to strip them of National Assembly seats or governor's positions.

Meanwhile, in an apparent bid to hit back at the CPP, Funcinpec organized several

press conferences by former Cambodian communist party chief Pen Sovann.

A former comrade of Hun Sen's in the Vietnamese-installed government after the Pol

Pot regime, Sovann fell from grace and was jailed for 10 years in Vietnam before

being freed in 1992.

Sovann, at the press conferences, indicated that he wanted a return to politics but

did not say he would join Funcinpec.



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