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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The opposition of one

The opposition of one

"PLEASE Samdech Hun Sen, allow me to be the opposition from now on," Thach

Reng asked the Second Prime Minister in a speech in the National Assembly after MPs

voted to lift Prince Norodom Ranariddh's parliamentary immunity.

Hun Sen, according to Thach Reng, smiled but did not reply.

A former anti-Vietnamese resistance chief, a Lieutenant General in the Royal Cambodian

Armed Forces and a Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party MP for Phnom Penh, Thach Reng

was the only MP not to vote against Prince Ranariddh in the National Assembly Aug


While most of his peers in the 'opposition' have fled Cambodia, Reng chose to stay

and - albeit cautiously - voice his dissent in the National Assembly. After the vote,

he was mobbed by journalists who pounced on him as the only opposition still existing

within the walls of parliament.

"I thought it over very carefully. I wanted to do what is fair. I acted according

to my conscience," he said the day after the assembly meeting.

"God told me I should not be afraid," he said. "Hun Sen said he wanted

opposition, so I will be it. A democracy without an opposition is a democracy without


Reng said that, after the vote, he was congratulated by some of his colleagues. What

he did was good, they told him.

He recounted his version of what happened during the closed-door vote on the lifting

of the First Prime Minister's immunity, which was decided by a show of hands.

Chhan Veng, the assembly's deputy secretary-general, read a letter from the Phnom

Penh military court asking for Ranariddh's immunity to be removed so he could be

investigated for treason.

Loy Sim Chheang, the Funcinpec secretary-general and acting assembly president, asked

Minister of Justice Chem Sgnuon (CPP) whether any special proceedings were required

for the vote. The answer was negative. "Let's vote," said Chheang.

"I waited for a minute and raised my hand to explain my position," said

Reng. "First, I wanted to know whether we were using proper procedure. I still

think that it was not valid because... the letter from the military court came straight

to us without passing by the government or the National Assembly standing committee.

I do not agree with that."

Once Reng finished his explanation, another speaker - CPP MP Chhour Leng Huot - argued

that other MPs had been stripped of their immunity the same way, an apparent reference

to Ranariddh's uncle, Prince Norodom Sirivudh.

With the debate out the way, MPs were asked to raise their hands for the vote. The

counting followed, and the result was declared - 99 votes, out of 99 MPs attending

the meeting, in favor of removing Ranariddh's immunity.

Reng - who had not raised his hand - protested that the count was wrong.

"My neighbors also said that I hadn't raised my hand, and they apologized. I

asked again to talk and explained why I did not raise my hand," said Reng.

First, despite the explanations of the proceedings given to MPs, Reng said that he

was not convinced. Secondly, he said: "I love my country, I love my nation,

I love my National Assembly. I want it to be credible."

It was here that Reng asked the blessing of Hun Sen to be "the opposition"

in parliament.

The vote on Ranariddh's immunity was noted - 98 out of 99 MPs in favor - and the

assembly opened its doors to the press for the subsequent secret-ballot vote on Ung

Huot's nomination to replace the First Prime Minister.

Reng later complained that the second vote was also procedurally incorrect, and that

there had been no opportunity for debate before the ballots were cast.

"The procedure has been completely misused. The First Prime Minister has to

be proposed to the King and by the president of the National Assembly with approval

of the two vice-presidents. They have to propose the candidate to the King. The King

gives the approval and then sends it to the National Assembly for a vote. But in

this case, one of the vice-presidents [BLDP MP Son Soubert] is opposed to that,"

said Reng.

"It is not abnormal to replace a First Prime Minister, but... we need to be

credible to prevent the future generation from blaming us. But as there was no debate,

I was not allowed to say that."

Reng did, however, gain a little support as an opposition force in the second vote:

a total of four MPs voted against Ung Huot's appointment, while six abstained. Huot's

appointment was approved, but only narrowly.

Ironically - or perhaps appropriately - Thach Reng is a beginner at being an MP in

a National Assembly which has long been accused of being little more than a rubber-stamp

for the government. He entered the assembly only seven months ago, replacing BLDP

patriarch Son Sann, who resigned.

"I replaced Son Sann in January, just three days before the end of the session.

Then the Parliament was closed for seven months. I didn't really have the occasion

to express my views," he recalled.

Now, he said, "I feel very free here, very free. I do not have any office. I

am not member of any commission. I just represent my voice."

Free is what Thach Reng has tried to be since he started his military career in 1954.

"As there was no war at that time, I chose to be in the smart part of the army

and I studied military engineering." He went to France and to the United States

to continue his studies, and later got a law degree at the end of the 1960s. He rose

to the rank of general and fought in the Lon Nol army before, upon the Khmer Rouge's

victory, going into exile in the United States in 1975.

One of his first jobs was as a donut baker. "First, when they knew I was a general,

the company did not want me to take the test. They said that I would not be able

to do it. But I insisted and I succeeded in making the donuts in time.

"The name of the franchise was DK donuts. People said it meant Democratic Kampuchea

donuts. It didn't, it was the brand name."

In 1982, when he left the US to join the anti-Vietnamese resistance at the Thai border,

Thach Reng had two donut shop franchises, as well as cars and houses for his family.

He joined the resistance group led by Son Sann, but the Thais were reluctant to have

him at the border - because of his past in the special forces - so he was sent to

France as a representative of the party.

Reng recalled the first time he met Hun Sen.

"I remember very well. It was on July 25, 1988 in Indonesia during the first

round of peace negotiations. At the coffee break, he walked to me and asked 'Your

Excellency, can I call you Bong (elder brother)?' I responded "It is a great

honor for me, but I reserve the right to call you Pha-on (younger brother).' He was

not sincere. Since then he kept on calling me Excellency."

Today, the veteran soldier doesn't see any point in going to the jungle to join a

new resistance against the Hun Sen-Ung Huot government.

"I think struggling within the community is better than struggling from outside.

I believe that some of my colleagues will have some problems surviving in the jungle.

It will take maybe 10, 20 or 30 years to overthrow today's government.

"I want to present a reasonable and constructive opposition."

Hun Sen, for one, was apparently a little surprised at Thach Reng's decision to stay

in Cambodia when many of his more outspoken colleagues chose to leave the country.

When the National Assembly was this month first reopened, Hun Sen spotted Thach Reng

and went over to him. "He said: 'You are still here, you did not leave - this

is the behavior of a real fighting general'," said Reng.

Days later, when Hun Sen and Ung Huot - armed with the National Assembly's approval

of Huot as the new Prime Minister - departed Phnom Penh Aug 11 to visit the King

in Beijing, Thach Reng was among the dignitaries who gathered to bid them farewell.

Hun Sen, when he saw Reng, greeted him: "Hello, Mr Democrat..."



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