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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hun Sen, King combine to convene council

Hun Sen, King combine to convene council

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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

electoral legitimacy.

Initially, Sihanouk distanced himself from accusations that he was masterminding

the boycott.

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

Reap.

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

step down."

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

the council.

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

men."

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

questions."

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.

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