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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Party 'could split royalists'

Party 'could split royalists'

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Prince Norodom Chakrapong tells media representatives about

his new political party May 20.

Funcinpec's problems ahead of next year's general election took a turn for the worse

after Prince Norodom Chakrapong announced the formation of a new party.

The Chakrapong Khmer Spirit Party, which consists of the prince and Toan Chay, a

former Funcinpec governor, presented itself to the press May 20.

Some observers felt the move could split Funcinpec's support, which has already been

damaged by the ongoing drama over the fate of co-Minister of Interior, You Hokry.

Funcinpec supporters have for months been calling for his dismissal. Late on May

23 Hokry said he would 'step down' from his ministerial post.

Chakrapong is the son of King Norodom Sihanouk, and half-brother of Funcinpec leader

Prince Norodom Ranariddh. He is also the founder and president of Royal Phnom Penh

Airways, which he said would stand him in good stead to run a successful political

party.

The prince said he had initially wanted to go back to Funcinpec, but after he spent

a year negotiating unsuccessfully, he decided that the party's political structure

had not reformed sufficiently.

"I have no dispute with my brother [Prince Ranariddh]," he said. "I

respect him, but not certain Funcinpec officials."

He said he was concerned Funcinpec had lost strength due to its inability to maintain

a political balance with its royalist credentials. Among the issues the party was

failing on were corruption, border disputes, proper enforcement of the country's

laws, and poverty.

On May 22, King Norodom Sihanouk released a press statement informing citizens that

the concept of 'royalism' belonged to every Cambodian.

"It is not one or other political party that represents the Monarchy or 'royalism',"

he wrote, reminding people that he holds no distinction between parties and that

"each gets the royal affection".

Chakrapong applied to register his party at the Ministry of Interior on May 17 and

said he would cooperate with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and other democratic

parties. The majority of his supporters, he claimed, are former Funcinpec resistance.

One political observer told the Post that the newly formed party was a political

warning to Funcinpec, which is struggling to resolve several internal disputes.

"I think that if Funcinpec delays or is unable to solve its internal conflicts

[such as the You Hokry case], then Chakrapong will increase in popularity before

the 2003 elections," he said on condition of anonymity. "[Cambodia's] political

impasse is serious and could result in a crisis in the national elections."

He speculated that if Funcinpec imploded, the dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP)

would hold sole power in Cambodia. That could result in further pressure from the

international community for reform, which the CPP might prove unable to undertake

successfully, with divisions likely over any anti-corruption stance.

A source inside Funcinpec said party rumors suggested that three influential party

figures, all former resistance fighters, might join Chakrapong if the party's dispute

with You Hokry was not resolved.

That was roundly denied by Ranariddh and the three men, but is indicative of the

scale of the problems facing the royalists. It remains to be seen if Hokry's act

of stepping down will placate leading figures, as he will still remain a member of

parliament for the party.

Initial indications were mixed, with one senior party source saying the committee

was satisfied with his resignation. It would give Hokry the opportunity to "change

his character". However another senior figure felt Hokry's stepping down was

was forced, and he would wait to see whether this benefited the party.

The battle within the party to oust Hokry dragged on for months and generated substantial

dissatisfaction within Funcinpec. In a last-ditch effort to sway Funcinpec, an estimated

3,000 Hokry supporters were trucked in from Kampong Cham, his political base, to

party headquarters May 22.

They were led by Hokry, who said they had come to lend him their support.

"This demonstration is to request justice for me," he said. "I was

accused of ignoring the position of the former resistance fighters, but I haven't

done that."

The protest came after 54 of the party's 62-strong steering committee signed a petition

demanding his removal. Hokry is accused of disregarding the plight of former Funcinpec

fighters, nepotism and corruption, all charges he denies.

Ranariddh told reporters May 22 that the committee had set a deadline of May 23 to

decide Hokry's fate. Ranariddh met him late that day to offer his "advice".

"If Mr You Hokry listens to my advice and agrees to resign from his position

as co-minister of interior, he will be allowed to stay on as a member of Funcinpec,"

Ranariddh said before the meeting.

If Hokry had refused to do so, then Ranariddh would have handed the case to the committee,

which had indicated it would sack him from both his job and the party.

"I cannot go against the decision of the steering committee and I regret he

led this demonstration, because it has affected both his personal honor and the party's

honor," said Ranariddh. "I was told Prime Minister Hun Sen will not oppose

my decision, because this is an internal affair of Funcinpec."

Once the Hokry issue was out of the way, Ranariddh said he would focus on reforming

the party's structure in preparation for July 2003 election. Funcinpec was stunned

by its dismal showing in this year's local elections.

Its decline in the number of National Assembly seats between the 1993 election, when

it took 58, and the 1998 election, when it won 43, is seen as evidence that the party

has lost the confidence of many former supporters.

Ranariddh estimated that splits within the party prior to the 1998 general election

cost Funcinpec 300,000 votes. As to his opinion on whether the same could happen

with Chakrapong's new party, he replied that it was his brother's right to form a

party, and he had no say.

"Whether there are more or fewer chances to lose votes, either way it will affect

Funcinpec," Ranariddh said. "I think [Chakrapong's party] will cost Funcinpec

votes and give the CPP an even better chance to continue in power."

Asked what he thought Prime Minister Hun Sen thought about both the troubles at Funcinpec

and Chakrapong's forming a new party, Ranariddh replied: "If I were Hun Sen,

I would keep playing golf."

Chakrapong has had a colorful political career. He was a senior general in the royalist

forces that in the 1980s fought the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh.

In 1992 he defected ahead of the country's election to the CPP.

After Funcinpec won the 1993 UN-sponsored election, Chakra-pong allied himself with

the late minister for national security, the CPP's Sin Song. A few months later Chakrapong

led an ill-fated secessionist movement in the south-east.

In 1994 he fled Cambodia after the government alleged he was plotting a coup. He

was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 20 years in jail. He returned in 1999

after a Royal pardon.

It is also not the first time Chakrapong's fellow party member Toan Chay, a former

governor of Siem Reap, has gone against Funcinpec, his former party. In early 1997

Chay quit Funcinpec and set up the National Unity Party, but the breakaway outfit

quickly crumbled.

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