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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - King defuses tension among factions

King defuses tension among factions

CAMBODIA approached the brink of political meltdown last week, as Hun Sen prepared

the scene for military action against Funcinpec, raising fears of open warfare within

the government coalition.

With all of Cambodia's leaders - bar himself - out of the country, the Second Prime

Minister publicly threatened to use force against "unconstitutional" enemies

and privately claimed Funcinpec was plotting against him.

King Norodom Sihanouk, in Paris with his son and First Prime Minister Prince Norodom

Ranariddh, was moved to issue a formal declaration that the Royal family would not

act against Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

The King also pledged that he had no desire to enter the political arena, and that

Ranariddh and Funcinpec had no intention to withdraw from the government or the National

Assembly.

At the Post's press time, neither King Sihanouk nor Ranariddh - who left on a private

visit to France soon after the King's departure for a state visit - were expected

to return to Cambodia in the immediate future.

The King, who had been due to return on Tuesday, was expected to remain in France

for a few days and then go to his Beijing residence. Ranariddh was reportedly planning

to go to the French town Aix-en-Provence to give law lectures.

In Cambodia, observers hoped that the King's statement had defused the situation

and that the possibility of violence had passed.

In the preceding days, unusual movements of troops believed loyal to Hun Sen, involving

tanks and helicopters, were reported around Phnom Penh. Rumors of military action

ran rife through the capital; some government officials choose not to venture out

at night, and Royal Palace staff were reportedly advised not to do so on at least

one occasion.

One government official, asked about troop movements south of Phnom Penh on one particular

night last week, replied: "It's been happening all week."

Hun Sen is reliably reported to have claimed to have more than 8,000 troops loyal

to him in Phnom Penh, including some transferred from other parts of the country.

It remained unclear whether Hun Sen had really been intent on taking military action,

or whether - if he seriously believed there were plots against him - he was simply

seeking to avert them by speaking out publicly.

But he was said to have called meetings with several diplomats last week, in what

was perceived as a bid to smooth the international repercussions of actions he might

take. At least one embassy is said to have relayed the message that it would suspend

aid to Cambodia if he effectively held a coup.

Pro-Hun Sen newspapers published attacks on Funcinpec, the King and Ranariddh. At

least one alleged that the Royal family - including the exiled Princes Norodom Sirivudh

and Norodom Chakrapong - were meeting in Paris to scheme against the CPP. The King

pointedly "deplored the hostility and injustice of the pro-Hun Sen... press

towards himself" in his statement.

Khmer Nation Party president Sam Rainsy was also in Paris, coinciding with an openly

anti-Hun Sen demonstration there April 29 which led Hun Sen to threaten his own demonstration

in Phnom Penh.

Also in Paris was Funcinpec Secretary-General Loy Sim Chheang - part of the King's

official delegation - until he returned early to Cambodia.

National Assembly chairman and CPP president Chea Sim - said to have criticized Hun

Sen at an internal CPP meeting days earlier - left to Singapore for health reasons

April 25. Sim, who aides said was suffering ossification of his spinal cord which

had led to headaches, was due to return to Phnom Penh this week.

The absence of the King and Chea Sim, who acts as head of state when the King is

out of Cambodia - along with Loy Sim Chheang, who is Sim's National Assembly deputy

- left National Assembly second deputy chairman Son Soubert as acting head of state

for several days. Chheang eventually returned to Phnom Penh to take over the position.

Fears of violence escalated after Ranariddh left for France a day after Chea Sim

departed Cambodia.

One source said Funcinpec feared that Hun Sen wanted to arrest several leading military

commanders, either because he believed they were plotting against him or because

he blamed Funcinpec troops for the Royal army's failure to capture Pailin in the

dry-season offensive against the Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen had previously alleged that five unnamed Funcinpec people were planning a

coup, and on another occasion maintained he had received evidence of a plot against

his life.

Another source said Hun Sen had told diplomats he believed that elements of Funcinpec

were planning a fight with CPP and stockpiling weapons.

Rumors of trouble peaked last weekend. On Saturday, Hun Sen delivered a strongly-worded

speech threatening military action to prevent the dissolution of the National Assembly

or the Royal Government.

Declaring that he would use the armed forces to suppress any such moves, he said:

"[I] cannot allow you to destroy the Constitution. When Hun Sen dares to speak,

he dares to act and he has the strength to do it.

"...This Constitution and the National Assembly are not for you to dissolve

for fun at all."

In what appeared a direct reference to Funcinpec, he noted that the Constitution

provided for the government to have a five-year term unless it was deposed twice

within 12 months.

"Read it [the Constitution] clearly and if it is still not clear, read it again.

I don't want to act in a foolish manner. The people are in need of development, political

stability and you gather to dissolve the government, the National Assembly, to organize

elections..."

At a Funcinpec congress in March, Ranariddh threatened that the party would withdraw

from the government and force an election "before the end of 1996" if CPP

did not agree to greater power-sharing.

In a statement dated the same day that Hun Sen made his speech, and released from

Paris the next day, King Sihanouk said that Ranariddh and Funcinpec "have no

desire to quit" the government or National Assembly.

The King declared "in my name and in the name of the Royal Cambodian family"

that "we are not forming and will not form a group of anti-Hun Sen or anti-CPP

'plotters'."

The King's communiqué reportedly took Hun Sen by surprise, with his aides

privately saying that the Prime Minister had never intended to be seen to be attacking

the King or Royal family.

Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy - speaking via telephone April 29 - confirmed he had held meetings

with the King, Ranariddh and Sirivudh in Paris. He would not "elaborate"

or say whether they were separate or joint meetings.

"We are not plotting... [but] as you can guess, that while we are all here in

Paris, we must have some consultations.

"Everyone is reassessing the situation. We realize the situation is very serious,"

he said, adding he would return to Cambodia next week.

Political observers pointed to a number of issues which had worsened Funcinpec-CPP

relations since Ranariddh first spoke out against CPP.

One of the most significant was CPP's recent support for Cambodian politicians to

be barred from holding foreign citizenship.

Ranariddh - a French citizen - opposed any such move in comments to reporters days

before he left for France.

Hun Sen, in the same speech in which he threatened military action, demanded "one

passport, one choice" for Khmer politicians.

Meanwhile, some observers viewed with significance statements made by the King in

the lead-up to last week's crisis.

Among them was an April 10 "interview" with Royal Palace staff in which

he said he was prepared to head another campaign to defend Cambodia against "foreign"

invasion if necessary.

Such a move would depend on his health but, "if I am feeling as well as I do

at the moment, I would not avoid placing myself at the will of our resistance against

the foreign invader or invaders."

The King headed the anti-Vietnamese resistance, which fought the former communist

regime headed by Hun Sen, in the 1980s.

In an interview with Paris' Le Monde newspaper published April 23, the King said

his telephones were bugged and the Royal Palace was "packed with spies".

He would not say who was responsible, except that it was "some men in power."

In the same interview, the King said that Hun Sen was intelligent, a good tactician

and knew how to "divide to rule."

According to one reliable source, Hun Sen is said to have recently expressed private

concerns that, if the two ruling parties came to a fight, Funcinpec could receive

the support of the Khmer Rouge, at least in parts of northern Cambodia.

While no observers credited that as a likely scenario, they acknowledged that any

armed fight between Funcinpec and CPP had the potential to revive Cambodia's civil

war, wiping out the great progress made since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the

UNTAC elections 19 months later.

One prominent Cambodian NGO leader described the current political situation as a

"most grave crisis".

"They are raising the stakes all the time. I cannot remember a more grave time

for many years."

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