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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rainsy: He didn't keep his head down

Rainsy: He didn't keep his head down

T HE international community - which saved former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy's political skin in March at the Tokyo ICORC meeting - has not made any fuss this time, realizing that further pressure would have been futile.

Rainsy continued to ignore advise from diplomats, international advisers and friends and even his wife to "keep your head down."

With government assurances to the outside world that its economic policies would not change without Rainsy in charge, his sacking was simply a matter of time.

So too was the sympathetic resignation of Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh who had maneuvered himself into an untenable situation.

"We deal with projects and programs, not personalities," said Reza Vaez-Zadeh, senior resident representative of the International Monetary Fund.

"There is no indication that there will be any change in the programme we have with the Cambodian Government," Vaez-Zadeh said.

Rainsy was popular, honest and technically brilliant in his portfolio but was a crusader who had given up any pretense of subtlety and political savvy, according to political commentators. The biggest surprise seems to be how he lasted 16 months in the job.

Sirivudh was disillusioned and bitter with First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and found it impossible to work with Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In siding with Rainsy he hastened his own departure.

Cambodia's reshuffled cabinet, to the delight of Ranariddh and Hun Sen, will be a much more stable, friendly affair - but there are fears that the corruption Rainsy sought to uncover and fight will be as prevalent but more hidden.

The Cambodian Peoples' Party has been strengthened at the expense of Funcinpec as a result of the moves.

Rainsy's replacement, Keat Chhon, is an experienced, reliable, senior politician who lives simply and is widely expected to do a good job "but you won't hear Keat Chhon talking anti-corruption, its not his style," said one observer.

Similarly, Sirivudh's replacement, former Education Minister Ung Hout, has built a good reputation in his old portfolio and is widely considered a politician who will handle the foreign affairs job competently.

There was a temporary blip in the Cambodian exchange rate immediately after Rainsy went - the riel edged up to 2800 - but this indicator of public confidence returned soon to around 2500 as people got used to the idea of Keat Chhon.

Rainsy was last week obtaining legal advise on whether he could remain in Parliament if he was also sacked from his Funcinpec party - an indication he believes that may yet happen. Sirivuddh has also resigned as secretary-general of the party.

Rainsy's slide away from Ranariddh was evident as early as March 1993. Rainsy, who has always been close to King Norodom Sihanouk, wanted to ditch the elections at that time when his Funcinpec party was investigating pre-election murders of some of its officials. Rainsy wanted to bring the King back as leader. Ranariddh resisted and won, publicly reprimanding Rainsy "but that start wasn't a very good basis for a close ministerial relationship," said one commentator.

Rainsy was the best qualified for the finance portfolio after his party's election win and made an immediate impact, within weeks bringing the IMF and the World Bank onside in a way that might not ordinarily have happened for some months.

"Technically he was very good and his reforms went further and faster than anyone thought could happen," said one source close to Rainsy, but who would not be named.

"The students loved him, they had T-shirts of 'SuperSam', Rainsy in a superman outfit with a big 'S', looking better than Christopher Reeve," he said.

Rainsy himself led police raids to break blockades of smuggling cabals, twice being shot at himself.

Rainsy hogged the headlines, at the same time niggling at corruption within both the CPP and Funcinpec.

Rainsy also quickly alienated himself with the multi-million dollar Thai-owned company Thai Boon Rong, whom he alleged was getting an unfair market advantage by paying off leading politicians. The open, public acrimony between himself and both political parties intensified.

"He took on both parties at once which was pretty brave, and he was calling both Prime Ministers corrupt, neither of whom reacted to this very well. He kept getting more and more evidence of corruption," said another political commentator who requested anonymity.

But while he was technically excellent, controlling state spending and stabilizing the exchange rate and inflation, he was "a political Don Quixote tilting at every windmill in sight," he said.

International aid donors pressured for Rainsy to be kept on as finance minister during the Tokyo ICORC donor meeting in March, after Ranariddh and Hun Sen had earlier petitioned the King in Beijing for Rainsy's sacking. The King agreed, but it was the last time such international pressure would help.

Rainsy's final miscalculation was when he broke cabinet solidarity "in a major way" by petitioning MPs to vote against the government in the bill to outlaw the Khmer Rouge - despite the fact that he eventually voted in favour of the bill.

"There is no political system in the world where it is acceptable to actively oppose government policy in such a way. In any other country he would have been summarily sacked," according to one of the sources.

If it wasn't for the attempted coup two days later, Rainsy would most likely have gone then. "That was not the time to go around sacking people, it was a time for consolidation," he said.

However, the open feud between Rainsy and his government made his sacking, at that time, inevitable. International agencies began getting used to the idea of a finance ministry soon to be without Rainsy.

Sirivudh, meanwhile, was close to both the King and Rainsy, and as foreign minister heard more from the "players" of the international community about how good Rainsy was than any other Cambodian politician.

When he came down on the side of the King and Rainsy over the Khmer Rouge outlaw bill, breaking cabinet solidarity, he opened himself up for the sack also.

Ranariddh could not publicly sack Sirivudh, the King's half brother - but sources say Ranariddh made it very clear in the "demeaning" way he treated Sirivudh thereafter that he wanted his foreign minister out.

Sirivudh, it is understood, told Ranariddh that if Rainsy went, so would he. Ranariddh's press conference shadowing the cabinet re-shuffle a week before the event was considered a clear indication to Sirivuddh "to get your letter of resignation ready," said one source.

"Sirivudh has linked his resignation partly to Rainsy but there was a lot more. It was his personal pride, and the position he found himself in with Ranariddh. He was disillusioned with Ranariddh and found Hun Sen impossible to work with," he said.

It is also understood that Ranariddh was genuinely surprised that Sirivudh also resigned his position as Secretary-General of Funcinpec.

Sources say that Rainsy and Sirivuddh would be very unlikely and unwise to resign from the party and Parliament - certainly so far out from the next election - to form another party "from the outside".

Commentators believe both men would consider that leaving the party would weaken their position further. They are likely to continue agitating from within Parliament but Rainsy's access to privileged ministerial information will be gone and will lessen his effectiveness.

It is seen that Rainsy and Sirivudh appeal to the groups of people that the government are alienating and losing - the middle class, small traders and business people, and students.

"These groups are thinking that the government came to power promising answers on the Vietnamese problem, corruption and development. Some are saying now that there are more Vietnamese, more corruption and no real development," said one source close to Rainsy. However it is not clear how far such views extend, say into the rural population.

Such disaffected groups are even beginning to see the Khmer Rouge as a viable group that, if ever allowed or invited to work inside the government, might ensure the honoring of pre-election promises. Western sources find such an option "horrifying".

Rainsy, it is clear, "broke the rules", though his closest advisers protected him as long as they could.

One political commentator said: "He effectively set himself up as leader of the opposition but still held a very senior governmental post. The international community knew it was only a matter of time, that he had stretched tolerance as far as it would go. He couldn't resist his Don Quixote complex."

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