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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Political warhorse no stranger to hardball democracy

Political warhorse no stranger to hardball democracy

Ron Abney was country director of the International Republican Institute

(IRI) in 1997 when a grenade ripped through a crowd of protestors, killing at least

12 people and securing Abney's lasting commitment to Cambodia. The Post's Liam

Cochrane spoke with Abney about the effects of that violent day, the bitterness

of political betrayal, and asks the $450,000 question: does IRI fund the Sam Rainsy

Party?

One of Ron Abney's most precious keepsakes is a receipt scrawled on the back of a

FBI business card. It reads: "Received one small grenade fragment to be analyzed

by FBI lab -- to be returned to Mr Abney when investigation is completed. T.E. Nicoletti."

It was this shrapnel from a hand grenade that pierced Abney's left hip and lodged

in his back during a protest on March 30, 1997, causing the US Federal Bureau of

Investigation to get involved in one of the bloodiest political attacks in recent

memory.

And it was that day, says Abney, now 63, that he went "full time" on Cambodia.

"Those kinds of things really change you, because sometimes people in Washington

and other countries look at foreign affairs like a chess game, you know, they're

not dealing with real people ... but if you were there that day of the grenade attack,

you saw what real life is about out here.

"The people with the power kill the people who don't have the power. That's

the lesson I learned that day, that's the reason you do this work. It's not that

you fall in love with some resistance movement. It's not a Che Guevara romantic involvement,"

said Abney.

Sitting in his Phnom Penh office, the interior dimmed by smoked glass and bars on

the windows that were installed in response to regular telephone threats to staff,

Abney is back in his old job while IRI finds a new country director to replace Jackson

Cox, who left to help shape democracy in Iraq.

Abney says he's happy to return to Cambodia, despite the painful memories.

"I work on Cambodia every day," said Abney, even when he's at home at his

rural property in Georgia in the United States.

"These guys all have my number. I'll be standing on my porch, 100-year-old house,

sipping a diet Coke and there's Rainsy on the line saying, 'They're trying to kill

me again!'" said Abney with a chuckle.

Abney makes no secret of his close friendship with Sam Rainsy, and his conviction

that the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) is the only political party worthy of support.

Critics of IRI-and there are many-say that by exclusively focusing their political

party training on the SRP, the organization is interfering in the affairs of Cambodia

and, in effect, trying for a slow-burning "regime change."

It's a familiar argument for Abney, and he has a well-honed response.

"We came here in 1993 with the National Democratic Institute to make sure ...

that any new democracy or post-conflict country trying to have some reform [can]

provide civil society with an opportunity to participate," said Abney.

"We worked with every political party. [From] 1993 through 1996 we trained CPP

[Cambodian People's Party], we trained Funcinpec, that's all we did.

"[In] 1996 we decided, our board decided, you know, we've given the established

party all we can give 'em, now we're going to look at those pro-democracy parties

that are outside... [and] out of that group came Rainsy's party as the only legitimate

pro-democracy, non-government party.

"If anybody believes that they [the CPP] have an internal democracy, I think

they're smoking something they sell down at the Central Market," said Abney

in the affable way that endears him even to those who question the work of IRI.

"Our programs now exclusively, in the party training part of it, are for Rainsy's

party."

He rejects outright any claims that IRI contributes funds directly to the cash-strapped

opposition, saying the provision of IRI-branded pencils and notepads at training

sessions and a per diem of $1 or $2 to cover food for participants are the limit

to their material assistance.

"We've never funded [SRP]. We can't, it would be against the American law for

us to provide funds to this party and we never have."

"There seems to be a myth that we're funneling money to the SRP, but our money

all goes to training."

This year IRI will spend about $450,000 training the SRP. That money goes mostly

to paying the trainers as well as expenses, such as renting meeting space at provincial

hotels, says Abney.

IRI has three foreign trainers (including the country representative) and four Cambodian

trainers on staff, but they also bring American consultants out to help boost SRP's

abilities to communicate their message and organize their party. This year will see

a focus on the management of the SRP central office in Phnom Penh.

However, Abney is keen to stress that the political party training is just one of

four programs that IRI runs in Cambodia.

About $900,000 goes to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, led by Kem Sokha. The

rest of IRI's total budget of $2.5 million, granted by the US Agency for International

Development, funds training for commune chiefs and the Youth Council of Cambodia,

which promotes democratic ideals to young people.

There was a time last year, after the formation of the "Alliance of Democrats"

between SRP and Funcinpec, that IRI was forced to consider widening its embrace of

opposition parties.

In October 2003, a meeting was arranged between Ron Abney and Prince Norodom Ranariddh,

Funcinpec president, at his house just outside Phnom Penh.

"I said to him, 'Look, I've just come out here from Washington, and everybody

wants to know if you're serious. I mean, why is this different from all the other

times?'"

"He was very emotional and he said, 'I tried to work with Hun Sen, it doesn't

work. I now know I can never work with him, it doesn't work, I've tried it on many

different occasions'."

Abney says he returned to Washington hopeful that the Alliance might bring together

the reformist SRP and royalist Funcinpec, and is still trying to come to terms with

Ranariddh's eventual deal to form a coalition government with Hun Sen.

"I don't know what causes a man to look you in the eye and say that, 'I'll never

do something because it's against all my principles in life,' and then change his

mind."

"I don't know if he never planned on making a deal, [or] whether he used Rainsy

as part of the bidding process, the longer it took, the more he took, the more he

had to barter with in terms of all these jobs and everything."

Abney believes Ranariddh "lost his place at the table" of serious political

discussion as a result of betraying the Alliance of Democrats, but says he remains

open to approaches from even the most unlikely political allies.

"There is a split within the CPP, there is a moderate wing, and God bless 'em.

If the moderate wing of the CPP came to us and said we want to form a moderate CPP

II, we'd probably work with them."

Not surprisingly, Ron Abney is upbeat about another four years of the Bush administration,

particularly the ongoing role of Senator Mitch McConnell, a strident critic of Hun

Sen and chair of the sub-committee that decides how US money will be spent on foreign

aid programs.

"It will make a difference to the pro-democracy, human rights people [and] groups,

anti-trafficking programs, the programs that the United States is very concerned

about."

These days, Abney is also applying for some of that American money for his company,

Transnational Public Policy Advisors, which run programs in leadership, assists political

parties, and will soon begin tackling human trafficking in countries such as Uganda,

Ethiopia, Liberia and Burma.

It's similar to his IRI work, but for profit.

Many proposals for new projects have been put on hold, says Abney, as the conflict

in Iraq drains funds and people away from pro-democracy work in other parts of the

world.

But while Iraq is the next port of call for the man with the Chinese character for

peace tattooed on his right forearm, it's likely Cambodia won't ever be too far away

in Abney's mind.

He is involved in an orphanage caring for 128 Cambodian children and still receives

tidbits of information about the 1997 grenade attack, like the photo taken 30 seconds

before the first blast that just surfaced and was emailed to him by friends who continue

the investigation.

"There's a lot of information that's out there on the grenade attacks that will

one day become public, I hope."

And then, Abney will be calling the FBI to claim back his shrapnel fragment, a tangible

reminder of his involvement in Cambodia's tough struggle towards democracy.

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