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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - I'm still here, says ex-Funcinpec Loy Sim Chheang

I'm still here, says ex-Funcinpec Loy Sim Chheang

His party got nowhere at the1998 general election, but Loy Sim Chheang boasts that

his Sangkum Thmei party will field candidates in 18 of the country's 24 provinces

for the July ballot.

The former first vice-president of the National Assembly and one-time secretary-general

of Funcinpec has been on the margins of politics since he quit the royalist party

in the aftermath of the 1997 conflict.

He was one of only a few senior Funcinpec officials who remained in Phnom Penh after

forces loyal to Hun Sen's CPP routed then-First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh

and his followers in July 1997.

The current mood of internal conflict within Funcinpec reminds Sim Chheang of 1998,

when a similar state of disarray drove him to establish his own splinter party.

"From 1997 I knew very well that I had made a mistake by staying in Funcinpec,"

he said. "Funcinpec is not a democratic party. I don't say that the party split,

but the party president pushed everybody to leave."

And he predicts that the factors that caused him to quit five years ago will drive

others away ahead of the July ballot. A number of royalists are in discussions to

join Sangkum Thmei, but he says it is "still too soon" to provide either

the names or the likely number of potential defectors.

One of those who joined his Sangkum Thmei party early on was Om Radsady, the recently

murdered senior advisor to Ranariddh. Radsady signed on to the party in 1998, but

returned to Funcinpec in 2000.

Sim Chheang said Radsady's killing was not completely unexpected.

"I was upset by his murder, but I was not surprised," he said. "When

he went to join them I warned him that it was dangerous, because Om Radsady was the

sort of man who stood up for the struggle. But seeing his stance, [I felt] they would

not let that struggle develop."

Sim Chheang said all democrats ought to know that standing up for democracy in Cambodia

could be dangerous. And despite the lack of success splinter parties have had in

politics, he is optimistic Sangkum Thmei will perform well.

However previous examples are not encouraging. For example Ranariddh's replacement

as Prime Minister, Ung Huot, established the Reastr Niyum Party, but failed to win

a seat in 1998. He eventually returned to the royalist fold.

And the former governor of Siem Reap, Toan Chay, whose National Union Party also

failed in its quest for National Assembly seats, last year joined with Prince Norodom

Chakrapong's splinter Khmer Spirit Party.

Sim Chheang said Sangkum Thmei, which means New Society, did not contest the February

2002 commune elections as it was conserving its meager resources for the national

poll.

But he maintains the party is popular, claiming that 3,000 people attended a party

congress at his Phnom Penh farm last month, and that the party has more than 10,000

active members. His implication is that people are hungry for change.

"Our history [shows that] Cambodia has never had the chance to build a real

democratic government. Right now we are obliged to accept the mixed regime of democracy

and the communist style," he said. "Our goal is that we need a real democratic

government following the decision of the Paris Peace Accords."

One strength of Sangkum Thmei, he said, is that its grassroots structure allows members

to select candidates and set policy. To Sim Chheang, the need for a fourth political

force is obvious. Without it, the major parties will simply continue with the status

quo.

"For myself, I don't believe them. I know everyone in the other political parties

very well [and] they cannot build a new regime," Sim Chheang said. "People

still remember me, so I hope we will win seats."

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