IN the final move to gain legitimacy after the National Assembly voted to appoint
Ung Huot as the new First Prime Minister, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and Acting
Head of State Chea Sim met with King Sihanouk in Beijing this week.
But the King, in statements issued earlier, seemed reluctant to endorse the new composition
of the government. He threatened to abdicate on Aug 11, if Hun Sen agreed, and later
in the day said that he would come to Siem Reap to pray.
The newly-appointed Ung Huot joined Hun Sen and Chea Sim and was presented to the
King on Aug 12, even though the monarch had earlier said that he would not recognize
him as a Prime Minister.
The long-deadlocked National Assembly was reopened July 28, in the absence of 14
Members of Parliament who left the country after Hun Sen's purge of First Prime Minister
Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
At the convening session, Chea Sim said that the July 5 and 6 "events"
were merely a "swift, highly-efficient retaliation and operation by government
forces, bearing no characteristics of a coup d'état." Chea Sim said that
the actions were meant to prevent political destabilization by extremist elements
and by the outlawed Khmer Rouge forces.
The National Assembly met one week later to discuss Ranariddh's immunity and the
election of his replacement, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ung Huot.
The vote to remove Ranariddh's parliamentary immunity was conducted by a show of
hands in a closed-door session. Observers complained about the methods used.
"Why did they use the closed-door session [to vote] on stripping Ranariddh's
immunity and then use a secret ballot in public session to elect Ung Huot?"
a political analyst, who would not be named, said.
"This is a way to intimidate the deputies. I have heard that members of Funcinpec
did not want to vote," he said. "They were trying to avoid judicial proceedings
against the First Prime Minister."
The second vote on Ung Huot's election was conducted by secret ballot on the Assembly
floor. Out of 99 MPs attending the session, 86 voted for Huot's appointment. The
next day, the King wrote to Chea Sim to allow him to sign the nomination decree.
"If in your understanding it should be, you can sign that decree of appointment,"
said the King. To have the election recognized, Chea Sim and Hun Sen requested an
audience with the King.
A delegation to Beijing was announced by Hun Sen after Ung Huot's election on Aug
6. The King's position over Huot's election had changed several times in the previous
weeks. At the end of July, he said that the election of Ung Huot would be invalid
as the parliament was incomplete.
On Aug 9, the King was reported as writing that he still recognized his son, Prince
Norodom Ranariddh, as the legitimate First Prime Minister. The King had said that
there were three First Prime Ministers in Cambodia "one in forced exile, one
'puppet', and one actual master of Cambodia."
But at the airport upon departure to Beijing Aug 11, Ung Huot said that: "The
official position is the one given to Chea Sim," declining to comment on being
called a 'puppet'.
Hun Sen said that using the word 'puppet' to describe Ung Huot was inappropriate,
saying that the vocabulary was that of the Khmer Rouge.
The same day, the King wrote to his biographer in Bangkok. The King complained that
those who said he was changing his mind were being unfair. In a list of four points,
he explained his position.
First, he said that Prince Ranariddh was, and would remain, the First Prime Minister.
Second, he said that he had always maintained that Ranariddh's ouster was illegal
and unconstitutional and that he would never change his mind. Third, the King wrote
that he had always declared that he would never sign the decree to nominate Ung Huot,
but that if Chea Sim thought that it was his duty to sign it himself, he could do
so. Fourth, he said that the visit in Beijing would be a private one.
He added that Hun Sen and the CPP had not yet deposed the monarchy and said that
it was impossible to avoid dealing with Ung Huot when even the tough United States
were talking to him.
And at the end - in a post-script - he said that he was ready to abdicate.
"My letter of abdication has already been prepared, but I am waiting for Hun
Sen 'our strongman' to make me understand indirectly - by words or appropriate gestures
- that I could abdicate without any risk of being criticized and accused of creating
major additional difficulties for the country and the people by him."
The King underlined before the visit, and again afterwards, that the meeting was
By sending contradictory messages, the King was most likely trying to save the monarchy,
"He hasn't much choice, but he may be trying to make a bargain for his blessing.
If the King disagrees on the nomination, there would be a Constitutional crisis,"
one analyst commented.
"In Cambodia there is a growing republican sentiment and republican elements
would be prepared to fight to the end in case of royal obstacle," he said, arguing
that the election of Ung Huot at the National Assembly was unconstitutional since
Article 100 was not adhered to.
In the Constitution, Article 100 states that the President and both Vice Presidents
of the National Assembly recommend a dignitary to the King for his approval. The
candidate is then presented for a vote of confidence by the assembly.
One analyst said that the visit to the King was a mix between paying respect to the
monarch and putting political pressure on him.
"The King has to think twice before stepping down if he wants to save the monarchy,"
He said that the King had developed three strategies since Aug 9. "He first
said that he continues to recognize Ranariddh and that Ung Huot is a puppet of Hun
Sen. This is a strong political message. He then threatened to abdicate for the first
time in a long period as an instrument [of political pressure]. And then he said
that he would be flying to Siem Reap to organize a ceremony and pray for peace and
reconciliation. He is not coming to Phnom Penh. This is a clear sign that he does
not want [his return] to be seen as endorsement of the new government," he noted.
On the need for the delegation to see the King, he said that even if the King does
not wield tangible Constitutional power, the government cannot continue without his
"He has the legitimacy from his position on the international scene. It is very
important that the King receive them," he said.
If the King stays, political stability and national reconciliation would be ensured,
he argued, saying that the King is the only cohesive political figure in the country.
"If on the contrary, the King steps down, it will be a real crisis and I am
not sure that Hun Sen would accept this major challenge," he said.
Observers said that the King's agreement to an audience on the day after Asean ministers
met to discuss Cambodia was not an accident.
During the Aug 11 meeting in Singapore, Asean foreign ministers distanced themselves
from Ranariddh. They said that he was still an important figure, but did not call
him First Prime Minister as they did just after the coup. The group offered to set
up a meeting between the different parties. But they would not comment on Ung Huot's
legitimacy, saying that Asean recognize states and not governments.
"The King did it on purpose. It is a signal sent to Asean," he said.
Sources close to the Palace said that the King sent a message to the international
community by talking about his abdication.
"Asean was ready to recognize Ung Huot [as First Prime Minister], but it changed
because of the King's statement and they did not recognize him," said the source.