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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - King brokers Sirivudh's departure

King brokers Sirivudh's departure

T HE King this week mounted a dramatic bid to resolve the Prince Norodom Sirivudh

affair, apparently without the Prince's prior knowledge, by seeking his exile from

Cambodia.

"This is an initiative that we were not informed about before," Princess

Christine Alfsen-Norodom said Dec. 12, hours after King Norodom Sihanouk took action.

At the Post's press time, there was no official word on whether Sirivudh would accept

a deal which would free him from government custody on the condition he left Cambodia.

Most observers however believed he was in little position to spurn the deal proposed

by his elder half-brother, the King.

Sirivudh remained at the Ministry of Interior but, if he agreed to exile, was expected

to be moved to the Royal Palace before his departure overseas.

The Prince - charged with attempting to overthrow the government in connection with

an alleged assasination plot against Second Prime Minister Hun Sen - had earlier

been adamant he would stay in Cambodia.

Christine Alfsen-Norodom said that when she was last permitted to visit her husband

on Dec. 9 he had "not the faintest clue" of what the King was to do three

days later.

And on the morning of Dec. 12, Sirivudh was visited by one of his three lawyers,

Heng Chy, to continue preparations for his defense.

"He never gave the impression to the lawyer that this [exile] was what he wanted,"

Christine Norodom said.

Hours later, on the afternoon on Dec. 12, the King sent an emotional appeal to Hun

Sen seeking his approval for Sirivudh to go into exile in France.

In his letter, the King urged Hun Sen - in line with Buddhist principles of tolerance

and forgiveness, and out of concern for Sirivudh's three young children - to grant

Sirivudh a "semi-pardon."

If Hun Sen agreed, the King wrote, "I would not fail to persuade him [Sirivudh]

to leave Cambodia definitively in order to start his life over in France."

Later that afternoon, Hun Sen replied in a letter to the King that he was prepared

to "fully follow" His Majesty's suggestion.

Christine Norodom said she had not been able to speak to her husband about the proposed

exile.

But she noted that Sirivudh had a special bond with the King and was likely to accept

His Majesty's wishes.

In a letter to Sirivudh on the afternoon of Dec. 12, the King wrote that he had allowed

himself to write to Hun Sen to request a "semi-pardon" for the Prince.

The King told Sirivudh that, if exiled, his life would be spared and he would avoid

being sent to T3 or another prison.

If imprisoned, Sirivudh might survive "horrible" hygiene and food conditions

but could face death at the hands of "killers and assassins" in prison,

the King warned.

The King's move came as little surprise to many political observers, and friends

and colleagues of Sirivudh's, who had expected some sort of attempt to find a compromise

to the Prince's predicament.

Most agreed that any deal would probably have to involve his exile, and be negotiated

under the auspices of the King, but questioned whether the Prince would agree.

"The only compromise is that Sirivudh will have to leave the country,"

said a Funcinpec official sympathetic to the Prince last week. "But how to make

him understand this?"

The official said it was not a case of giving in to Hun Sen or the Government, but

that "we just recognize the reality...that in any negotiation Hun Sen must win.

As we understand, no-one must lose face."

Christine Norodom, speaking five days before the King's letter to Hun Sen, said:

"What I can say [is that] those of us trying to get Sirivudh out of this trouble,

we believe more in an Asian solution than a Western solution."

But she reiterated Sirivudh's determination not to flee Cambodia and said "it

has to be a compromise that saves his political face as well."

Sirivudh, if he goes to trial, faces possible life imprisonment if convicted of charges

of effectively plotting a coup against the government. He has strongly denied the

charges, which stem from alleged death threats by him to Hun Sen.

The King's proposal for Sirivudh's exile explicitly leaves it open for the Prince

to be tried in absentia and have sentence passed on him if found guilty.

"As to Cambodian justice, it could follow its course in the case concerning

Norodom Sirivudh, who made very unfortunate death threats against Your Excellency,"

the King wrote in his letter to Hun Sen.

Sirivudh, the King said, had made "completely unjust, unjustified and unpardonable"

comments about Hun Sen.

The King repeatedly compared Sirivudh's case to that of Prince Norodom Chakrapong,

exiled from Cambodia following the attempted coup in July 1994.

The King and Hun Sen's agreement for Sirivudh to be offered exile followed two weeks

of controversy over the evidence of Khmer Journalists Association (KJA) secretary-general

So Naro, a key witness against Sirivudh.

In a Nov 29 statement, Naro publicly acknowledged he had acted unprofessionally in

publishing a newspaper article based on a private conversation he and fellow KJA

official Cheam Phary had with Sirivudh in October.

Naro said it was possible that Sirivudh - who reportedly made references to killing

Hun Sen in the conversation - may have been "just joking" in his comments.

Naro's statement was based on an original version drafted by American Mike Fowler,

an adviser to the KJA - an action which led one of Hun Sen's advisors to allege that

Fowler had improperly influenced Naro to change his testimony.

Om Yin Tieng - Hun Sen's main advisor on the press - called a press conference on

Dec 7 to announce he planned to lay a court complaint against Fowler alleging "coercion"

of Naro as a witness.

Naro responded the following day by issuing a further press release saying that he

had asked Fowler to draft the original statement. Naro said he had made some changes

to the original text and signed it without any pressure on him from Fowler or anyone

else.

Fowler, for his part, denied any wrong-doing, saying it was a normal part of his

job to offer advice and prepare draft documents for KJA officials who were free to

accept or reject his suggestions.

By Dec 11, Yin Tieng was still vowing to pursue a court complaint against Fowler.

It is unclear what his position will be if Sirivudh goes into exile.

Meanwhile, Fowler's original draft statement indicated that Cheam Phary - Naro's

co-witness to Sirivudh's comments - did not believe that the Prince had made serious

threats against Hun Sen.

A line in the original draft, deleted by Naro in the final version, read: "The

other person who heard the conversation [with Sirivudh] believes that he was just

joking."

Phary has refused to comment publicly. Both he and Naro are understood to have been

interviewed by Phnom Penh Municipal Court chief judge Oum Sarith last week, with

one of Sirivudh's lawyers permitted to observe.

Meanwhile, KJA president Pin Samkhon confirmed that he had been interviewed by the

Ministry of Interior, on behalf of the court.

Samkhon said ministry officials had questioned him over his knowledge of Naro and

Phary's conversation with Sirivudh, but said he did not know whether he was being

considered as a third witness against the Prince.

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