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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt weathers stormy press as Prince exiled

Govt weathers stormy press as Prince exiled

W ITH sirens wailing and traffic halted, a convoy of armed guards ushered Prince Norodom Sirivudh out of the country in Royal fashion, ending a month of high drama surrounding charges that he plotted to assassinate Hun Sen.

"It's been like living in Alice in Wonderland, and now we are at the stage where the queen says, 'off with her head'," said Princess Christine Alfsen Norodom, Sirivudh's wife, as she also left for France for the holidays.

"Big people become small and small people become big and there are fantasies and nightmares and white rabbits in a hurry."

Indeed, by the time Sirivudh was escorted to the ramp of the Silk Air flight to Singapore Nov. 21, en route to France, the notion that the King's good natured younger brother and secretary general of Funcinpec would want to conspire to assassinate anyone seemed far fetched. Sirivudh was described by those who know him as a man with a sense of humor who often made off-color jokes.

"But this time he used the silly words, 'I will kill him'," said Ahmad Yahya, a member of Funcinpec and National Assembly member representing Phnom Penh. "If you say something like that, the leader can make trouble for you if he wants."

But although Sirivudh is out of the country, several details about his case remain unresolved.

The context of that alleged taped conversation Sirivudh allegedly had at some point has not been made public.

The journalist who wrote the original story in a Khmer newspaper saying Sirivudh had told him about an "assassination plot" issued a formal statement saying that Sirivudh "may have been joking" and so it's not clear what weight his testimony would hold at trial.

The government has disclosed no additional evidence against Sirivudh except for the illegal recording.

No trial date has been set.

Princess Christine said she and Sirivudh want the case resolved either with a trial or a dismissal of the charges. "We want the legal process to come to an end. The lawyers will not accept that the charges be frozen in air. We don't want this to hang over his head," she said.

In the past few weeks, Cambodia has been battered on all sides in the international press in part due to the Sirivudh debacle. The New York Times, Washington Post, South China Morning Post, Asian Wall Street Journal and others have treated Sirivudh's detention as a serious indication that human rights are eroding in Cambodia.

A Washington Post article Dec. 9 was headlined, "Cambodia shows signs of returning to old patterns of violence, repression" and then a Washington Post editorial last week said Hun Sen had Sirivudh arrested on "phony assassination charges."

An Asian Wall Street Journal editorial said that Hun Sen was up to "political thuggery" motivated by lack of support for his own policies.

The South China Morning Post said in a Dec.15 story that Hun Sen was obviously "paranoid," and pointed to what it called his "vitriolic, rambling diatribes, their tone of late menacingly xenophobic."

With that attention likely to continue during a trial, the solution proposed by the King to send Sirivudh out of the country indefinitely was heralded by many as a face saving solution for everyone - except, of course, for Sirivudh.

"What it does is diffuse the tension created by his arrest and the international outcry that would occur he were to continue to be held in detention and then tried," said human rights lawyer Jim Ross.

"We would like to say that nobody wins and nobody loses, or that everybody wins," said Yahya. "Sirivudh wins because he does not have to spend many years in jail, and nobody will talk about Cambodia any more, or cut off aid. But in fact if you look at the reality, Sirivudh loses because he has to leave the country."

Yahya said that Ranariddh had told members of Funcinpec that the party would retain its popularity without Sirivudh.

"The leader says it doesn't really matter, that he has the confidence of the people, so we have to trust him."

Both Prime Ministers declined to comment for this story. Princess Christine said neither Prime Minister had spoken to Sirivudh in the last month.

Sirivudh, who went to Singapore for a couple days relaxation and then to France to meet his children and in-laws, also declined comment to reporters.

The King has asked him not to talk to the press, and he was given VIP treatment in Singapore and Paris to skirt reporters.

At the request of the King, Sirivudh wrote each Prime Minister a letter echoing the words of the king that he would avoid politics and in particular not to join the new Khmer Nation party created by opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Sihanouk meanwhile, in a series of letters to Sirivudh, Hun Sen and Ranariddh, continually termed Sirivudh's departure to France as a "permanent exile." But politicial observers cautioned that in politics nothing is permanent.

"In the world of changing politics, it is possible he might return and play a leading role once again. He is still young," said Dr. Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, who said the silencing of Sirivudh's voice is a significant loss for Cambodia.

"It is very significant in that other people of lesser calibre will not be willing to speak their minds in the future. If you kill freedom of expression, you kill the good ideas that might come from expression," he said.

Some observers contend that Sirivudh was but a minor player in Cambodia politics who arrived on the scene only a few years ago and his loss is of little consequence.

But Mong Hay said the same might be said of most politicians in Cambodian.

He said Sirivudh deserves credit for his role as Foreign Affairs Minister, a post he resigned last year in sympathy over the firing of Sam Rainsy as Finance Minister.

He said Sirivudh paved the way for his successor in integrating Cambodia into the rest of the world.

Another part of his legacy is also the Khmer Institute of Peace and Cooperation, a think tank on foreign policy.

"It's a loss to the country and to the monarchy," said Mong Hay. He said he thought it was also a blow to Funcinpec, which is further splintered.

Princess Christine declined to comment on the possibility that Sirivudh might return, or where he will live, in France or in another Asian country, possibly Indonesia.

She said Indonesia would be a "good place for him to study."

She said she and their three children will return in January to Phnom Penh where she will continue to work at Unesco.

She said she has good relations with the ministries, and did not think politics affected her ability to work as Unesco's environmental officer.

"You have to go through with this sacrifice, whether it's a chicken or a prince," said Princess Christine.

"Once the monster is calmed down, he goes back into his grotto."

But she said for the moment, her family wants to be out of the spotlight.

She said the past month had been a nightmare in which her phone had been monitored by the Ministry of Interior, she was only allowed to visit Sirivudh at his Interior Ministry cell once a week, and their three young children were not permitted to say goodbye to their father.

She said she had borrowed a mobile phone from a friend and about a week after she started using it, officials of the Ministry of Interior showed up at her friend's home with a sheaf of phone records demanding to know who was making all the overseas calls.

When her friend explained that she had loaned the phone to someone else, the officers told her it was against the law for a foreigner to loan a mobile phone to anyone and demanded to see the phone.

France has granted him a Schengen visa, which gives him freedom to travel throughout many European Union countries without restriction, and according to Princess Christine there was no reason why Sirivudh could not travel anywhere else in the world at will, and possibly settle in a nearby Asian country.

She meanwhile plans to stay in Phnom Penh with their children.



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