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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - IRI, Sokha try to ruin Funcinpec: Prince

IRI, Sokha try to ruin Funcinpec: Prince

Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh accused the US-based International Republican

Institute (IRI) and Kem Sokha of colluding to ruin his party to change the government.

"IRI has decided it has to help Sam Rainsy take the place of Hun Sen,"

said Ranariddh outside the National Assembly November 13. "But they're not allowing

Sam Rainsy to work against Hun Sen by himself."

He stated IRI and Sokha planned to convince Funcinpec officials to defect to the

SRP in advance of next year's election so that "Sam Rainsy will step to power,

which I think is only just a dream".

Sokha resigned as senator from the prince's party one week after he was in an October

5 auto collision. He was slightly injured in the crash that he said was a deliberate

assassination attempt.

"My political perspective is against dictatorship and corruption. By enforcing

laws the culture of impunity can end," said Sokha. "I will betray my political

perspective if I still work within the coalition government formed between Funcinpec

and the CPP."

However he denied any political bias in the work of his new NGO. The former Senate

human rights committee chair recently established the Cambodian Center for Human

Rights (CCHR) with the help of a $450,000 grant from IRI.

CCHR would work to help Cambodians understand their rights before next year's elections,

he added. A major part of that plan is broadcasting election related programs. President

of

IRI George A. Folsom sent Sokha a congratulatory letter on November 12.

"IRI believes strongly in your vision of a new kind of NGO that stands up for

democracy and human rights in one of the world's most repressive political environments,"

wrote Folsom.

"As IRI has for over a decade - through elections, coup d'etats and grenade

attacks - we will stand shoulder to shoulder with democrats in the struggle for a

democratic government formed through free and fair elections, and will come to your

support in the event of future political trouble."

`The institute, described by one observer as "back-room power politics",

maintains offices around the world. In the past it has received heavy criticism for

overreaching its pro democracy mandate.

When Folsom wrote an April 12 letter hailing the ouster of Venezuelan president Hugo

Chavez in a coup the previous day, some quarters thought IRI had a hand in the events.

Many interpreted his remarks as proof of partial responsibility for the change of

an elected government, which in the end lasted only two days.

IRI's activities and reputation have some Phnom Penh diplomats whose nations are

allied with the US concerned, said one prominent member of Cambodian civil society.

"I know that a few diplomats aren't happy with the role of IRI in Cambodia,"

he said on condition of anonymity.

However Johanna Kao, program director in IRI's Cambodia office, denied Ranariddh's

assertion that her organization is out to destroy Funcinpec. Its focus was on promotion

of democratic principles, not any particular political parties.

"I don't know the motivation for why the prince would say something like that,"

she said, adding that since 1992, IRI has trained "thousands" from all

three major political parties "to support and promote democracy". In the

lead-up to next year's elections, one IRI staffer said the organization hopes to

have a budget of $2 million to spend in Cambodia. Most of these funds would be provided

by USAID.

Of the statement issued by Folsom after the April coup in Venezuela, Kao said: "My

understanding is that it was a misunderstanding of what our president said. Our vision

for Cambodia is a healthy democracy."

Kao also said reports US Senator Mitch McConnell, who in September called on his

government to force a Cambodian "regime change", was on IRI's board of

directors, were false.

However McConnell, in line to chair the US Senate Appropriations Committee, also

sent a congratulatory letter to Sokha. McConnell wrote that the work of CCHR was

vital to development of democracy in Cambodia.

"Many of us in Congress will be relying upon the information provided by CCHR

for additional insights into Cambodia's current affairs," he wrote. "We

cannot - and will not - tolerate violence, intimidation, and chicanery that has become

the hallmark of Cambodian politics."

Government spokesman Khieu Khanarith said he was not concerned about CCHR's activities

in the Kingdom.

"The Cambodian people are mature enough to make their own decisions," he

said. "If we find we cannot rule the country they can make the change."

Former Khmer Institute of Democracy director Dr Lao Mong Hay also said there was

nothing wrong with IRI operating in Cambodia and welcomed any organization that was

pro -human rights and democracy.

"We haven't had free and fair elections so far," said Mong Hay, "so

... their activities would contribute to free and fair elections."

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