ODD MAN OUT
Constitutional Council appointee Pung Peng Cheng keeps his distance from
six of his colleagues during a ceremony at the Royal Palace. Peng Cheng
later convened the council and promptly quit.
AFTER weeks of backroom dealing and pressure on Constitutional Council members, it
appears the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has completed the capture of the most
important legal body in the land.
The behind-the-scenes story of how this was done appears to implicate both Second
Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihanouk in tampering with the sanctity of
the council's independence.
Sources said that Sihanouk - worried that a free-thinking council would be seen as
opposing the CPP with his blessings - conceded, and possibly even prompted, the resignation
of one of his appointees, the feisty elderstatesmen Pung Peng Cheng.
The King's three appointees to the nine-member council - Peng Cheng, Son Sann and
Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum - had twice effectively boycotted calls for the council's opening
session, preventing it from convening.
The CPP needs the council - some critics say a sympathetic and pliant one - to secure
Initially, Sihanouk distanced himself from accusations that he was masterminding
In a June 6 statement, the King said: "I would like to solemnly deny this serious
accusation against me which is contrary to the truth. In fact, [my three appointees]
have each acted according to his own conscience. They have never consulted with me
or asked for my orders."
But two days later, Hun Sen - aware of the international community's demand that
the council be functional before the July 26 polls - flew up to see the King in Siem
Together, sources say, they ensured that the council impasse would be resolved. On
June 13, Peng Cheng announced he would tender his resignation following the convening
of the council and that he would step down as soon as the King replaced him.
The 82-year-old, who was the King's cabinet chief during the early 1970s, said at
a June 13 press conference: "It is so complicated I want to run away."
He said he felt the political environment had substantially changed since he was
first appointed in 1993.
"I was full of enthusiasm. I wanted to use my 62 years of experience to help
build a government of law," he said. "The situation is now different than
[when I was appointed]. It is very, very difficult. During this crisis I worked hard
for seven days. It is exhausting... That is why I realized I can't take part in the
council. Even if the two Samdechs (Sann and Cocsal Chhum) come back, I will still
The official reason for Peng Cheng quitting was for health reasons.
But the June 16 issue of CPP-friendly newspaper Chakraval reported Peng Cheng's resignation
came as a direct result of pressure from the King.
Chakraval quoted a speech Hun Sen made on June 13 in which he said that the King
warned he would "remove" his Royal appointees if they continued shunning
According to the newspaper, Hun Sen told a crowd of 3,200 in Phnom Penh that the
King had said to him: "If they don't go to the meeting, I will remove them right
away. Me, Sihanouk, I cannot have broken stones thrown at my chest by these three
One observer said Peng Cheng was trapped between the King and a CPP-dominated council,
and the only way out was to quit. His choice, according to the source, was to preside
over the June 15 meeting and then resign.
"If he didn't [convene the council on June 15], he would become the enemy of
both," the observer said. "The pressure is not from the CPP. It is the
[King] who said they must [convene]. The King will deny it, he will be angry. He
will say: 'I never said they had to go'." Several sources said that Hun Sen
gently encouraged the King to spur the council to action.
Several days before Chakraval went to press, another CPP source offered a similar
version of the June 8 Royal audience. "The big man [Hun Sen] played it the right
way. He asked gently. His Majesty has his own vision of things. He knows we still
need someone strong. Without a strongman, who can tame all these CPP generals, all
these power brokers?"
The Post has made repeated requests for the King's response to these allegations.
A royal aide said: "His Majesty said he is sorry but he cannot respond to your
New Council chairman Chan Sok told the Post: "There is nothing to talk about.
Nothing is sure. I don't know if [Hun Sen went to Siem Reap] for this affair. Maybe
it was for the Queen's birthday, I don't know. Maybe they did talk about it, maybe
they didn't. "
A CPP source said that the King "softened things" at Hun Sen's prodding,
instigating Peng Cheng's resignation and a breaking of the Council boycott.
Ultimately, "Sihanouk is responsible for this," one legal observer said.
"He has no more right to interfere than Hun Sen."
One Western diplomat agreed: "Since its formation, the Constitutional Council
appears to have suffered a degree of political interference. It is likely that individuals
who are not members of the council have pressured for its convening.
"I think right from its very inception the Constitutional Council has had very
dubious legitimacy," he added. "Its formation has violated the Constitution
in numerous ways that have been repeatedly documented... And this is the foundation
upon which the guardian of the Constitution has been built? We have yet to see how
it operates, but all the signs do not bode well."
One opposition member said the bad light being shed on the King is part of a CPP
media campaign to blame the monarch for the CPP's own judicial interference.
"The King refused the CPP pressure to pressure [Peng Cheng]," said the
politician who asked not to be named. "While [the King] was packing to leave
for Beijing, Hun Sen got him at the last minute. He said: 'I never accused you of
being behind the boycott'."
The source claimed Hun Sen was able to convince the King not to leave the country
by promising him there would be no pressure over the council as Peng Cheng had already
come to an agreement with the CPP.
"This is a story that makes the CPP look good, it makes Pung Peng Cheng look
good... They want to involve the King in this. This has nothing to do with the King,"
he added, noting that Peng Cheng has long known how things work, ever since he became
involved with the Hun Sen government in 1987.
Meanwhile, Bar Association President Say Bory has said the June 15 appointment of
Chan Sok as Constitutional Council president is illegal.
Say Bory said that an incoming chairman must have at least six votes to be legally
appointed, under law.
Chan Sok got only five of the seven votes cast. "It would [therefore] be illegal
to appoint him as president, in this condition," Bory said.
As the Post went to press, the next council session was on hold until the King signed
the decree officially making Chan Sok head of the council, Bory said, noting that
he would bring the issue up in an upcoming audience with the King.