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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Musical chairs as election looms

Musical chairs as election looms

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Five of the seven Funcinpec defectors to the opposition SRP stand at the National Assembly on March 25. From left: Nhek Vannara, Neou Phirith, MP Keo Remy, Kem Sokhon and Chhun Sareth. Not pictured are MPs Ismail Yusof and Sao Ngin. Two days later SRP MP Hor Sopheap went the other way.

FUNCINPEC secretary-general Prince Norodom Sirivudh accused the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) of engaging in a battle to destroy the monarchy, and promised the royalists would counter such moves. He predicted that the only party to gain from dissent would be the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Sirivudh's comments came as seven more senior Funcinpec members announced on March 25 they had joined the SRP. Two days later an SRP MP joined Funcinpec. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy predicts more royalists will defect over the coming months.

With the general election just four months away and rumors of further defections, Funcinpec is scrambling to limit the damage. Sirivudh denied on March 27 that Funcinpec's support base was crumbling.

"We met members across the country on March 21 and we found there were no problems within Funcinpec. It is not broken, as the critics say; instead we are strong," Sirivudh said. "But those who have personal problems and think only of their own interests are free to leave."

The royalists held two press conferences on March 26 and 27 where they paraded 100 people they said were SRP defectors. Among them were SRP MP Hor Sopheap, and Sam Rainsy's former chief bodyguard Srun Vong Vannak. Both men said Rainsy had betrayed the principals of democracy.

"We walked away from Sam Rainsy because his policies are going the wrong way," said Sopheap. "Since he visited Vietnam he is no longer against illegal Vietnamese immigrants, border encroachment or the communist CPP."

Those assertions were rejected by SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann. He said Vannak had already been expelled from the party, while Sopheap had not worked hard enough and owed three years of subscriptions.

Sovann alleged Funcinpec had offered the men money to defect, but conceded the SRP's ongoing reform effort meant problems would arise. Party leader Sam Rainsy said the defections showed it was impossible to please everyone.

"We choose those people who have the ability to work hard and are popular among the voters, and who can work in high positions in the future," Rainsy said.

Funcinpec's deputy secretary-general, Serey Kosal, said more SRP members, including some MPs, would defect after Khmer New Year in mid-April.

The latest blow to the royalist party saw three MPs head to the opposition. Outspoken Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy was joined by fellow MPs Ismail Yusof and Sao Ngin, as well as two under-secretaries of state: Chhun Sareth at the Ministry of Agriculture, and Neou Phirith who was at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

The other two defectors were Nhek Vannara, an assistant to Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Kem Sokhon, advisor to Nhiek Bun Chhay, deputy secretary general of Funcinpec.

Remy had concluded that Funcinpec lacked the political will to ensure the interests of the nation and its people were served. Another reason he was leaving, he said, was nepotism and corruption.

"If I only thought about what benefited me, I would remain with Funcinpec and keep quiet to please the prince, and be happy to make money by being corrupt," he said.

SRP senator Ou Bun Long, who also heads the party's election organizing committee, told the Post that 4,000 SRP members would gather at headquarters on March 28-29 for the opposition's annual congress.

Members would debate political strategy and reorganize the party structure. Among the bodies to be reformed are the national council, the steering committee and the standing committee. The recent defectors would be eligible for election to the highest structures.

Funcinpec's Serey Kosal said the absence of those who had quit would only help the royalists.

"They are seeking power, because now is the time for them," said Kosal. "The events of 1997 saw pressure on some of our members and caused some to leave to [other parties]," said Kosal.

In response to criticism that Funcinpec had been subsumed when it joined the CPP in coalition, Kosal said that had been done in the interests of maintaining peace. Funcinpec had been forced to share power despite winning the 1993 UNTAC-sponsored election. But, he continued, Funcinpec had not been corrupted by its time in coalition, had not ignored its royalist mandate, and had not sold out.

In his speech to the party faithful at Funcinpec's congress on March 21, Ranariddh repeated that the coalition was necessary to maintain stability and personal security for the people. It had provided a fundamental base on which the country could move forward, and remained the people's "strong hope" for continued political and economic stability.

But despite peace and development, the people continued to face life-threatening risks, including widespread poverty, violations of territorial borders, and crime.

"A nation faced with crime, violence, instability and a weak judicial system is a nation limited in economic and social development and can face difficulties in mobilizing external investments," he wrote in his speech.

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