P ATRONS at a street-side cafe on Monivong Blvd put down their drinks and stared in
disbelief at the television. Moto drivers and passers-by also stopped to look as
someone cranked up the sound to hear the story behind the image: bitter political
enemies Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and Khmer Nation Party President Sam Rainsy
shaking hands and smiling.
Since his triumphant return to Cambodia, Sam Rainsy has seized the political spotlight
and re-ignited his Khmer Nation Party, but many of his supporters were shocked to
see him meeting with Hun Sen.
Rainsy admits there has been negative feedback, but he insisted that working with
Hun Sen to bring back Prince Norodom Ranariddh and jump-start the election process
does not mean he has compromised his principles.
"It is a great opening. Not everyone understands. I have been criticized by
some of my friends," he said.
"This is not a breakthrough for Sam Rainsy, but a breakthrough for peace and
democracy in Cambodia."
None-the-less, Rainsy and the burgeoning KNP are benefiting from the new relationship,
perhaps at the expense of Prince Ranariddh.
Rainsy has begun working independently of his Union of Cambodian Democrats compatriots,
returning to Cambodia four days before a UCD advance delegation arrival to determine
whether it was safe for self-exiled politicians to return.
Ranariddh, Son Sann-loyalist Keat Sukun and Khmer Neutral Party head Pen Dareth wrote
to Rainsy asking him not to return early. He refused.
"Time is a very important element. The KNP has a lot of work to do inside the
country, while other parties have different priorities," Rainsy explained. "We
have a different strategy and I don't like to think my future is tied with Prince
Ranariddh's and Son Sann's."
Could his future now be more closely tied to Hun Sen and the CPP? In a hypothetical
election scenario ending with the KNP, CPP and Funcinpec each capturing roughly one-third
of the vote, Rainsy said he would like to form a coalition government containing
all three parties.
"The most assured way to promote stability in the country is with a large coalition,"
he reasoned. "But a two-party coalition, either with Funcinpec or the CPP, would
be very fragile."
The sudden willingness to consider a government that could contain himself and Hun
Sen comes a long way from accusing the Second Prime Minister of being a "dictator"
and "murderer," but the KNP president said he still does not believe the
CPP will campaign fairly during the election.
"All of the CPP apparatus is in place to corrupt the electoral process, to make
a mockery of it," he said. "But how far they will go will depend on the
Yet the Dec 8 meeting with Hun Sen at the Second Prime Minister's Takhmao residence
- the first time the two have met in more than three years - marked a turning point
in Cambodian politics.
It began a diplomatic initiative by Rainsy that broke a logjam the United Nations,
Japan and the Cambodian parties directly involved could not dislodge.
The international community has refused to help fund elections unless Prince Ranariddh
is involved, but Hun Sen continues to insist that the deposed first premier must
face charges brought against him in Phnom Penh's military court.
Assuming a conviction on charges of importing weapons illegally and colluding with
the outlawed Khmer Rouge, the King can amnesty his son without restrictions. However,
the monarch has, up until now, refused to grant politically sensitive pardons without
an appeal from both Prime Ministers.
Additionally, the Prince stated he would not request a pardon for charges he says
are bogus, and Hun Sen has also declined to ask for the amnesty, although he has
said he is "not opposed" to it.
Sam Rainsy broke through the stalemate in a Dec 12 meeting with King Sihanouk by
suggesting Ranariddh's case had special implications for donors demanding credible
"The King said as soon as Ranariddh is tried, and if he is convicted, the King
will grant amnesty immediately, without waiting for anyone to request it," Rainsy
said less than an hour after his audience with the monarch.
"Ranariddh has said he would not refuse an amnesty from his father...I think
everyone realizes this is a political settlement, [The court case] is only window
dressing," he said.
King Sihanouk has since confirmed his readiness to amnesty his son, saying he cannot
accept the selective nature of a court system that has seen charges filed against
the Prince, while no action has been taken to arrest or prosecute those responsible
for the executions of more than 40 Ranariddh loyalists.
"I cannot accept such an injustice," the King said in a Dec 15 interview
with his bulletin staff. "The Cambodian electorate has the right and the duty
to judge Samdech Ranariddh in the 1998 ballots, because it is the people [who] brought
Prince Norodom Ranariddh to power by giving a victory to his Funcinpec in the 1993
Sam Rainsy said he worked the deal by identifying the cause of the deadlock and then
making sure no egos were bruised in breaking it.
"Hun Sen is very interested in saving face. He does not want to change his position
on Prince Ranariddh, but if the Prince is allowed to return as part of a larger deal
with the goal of benefiting the nation, he will cooperate," Rainsy said in a
Dec 15 interview at the home of exiled-Prince Norodom Sirivudh.
Rainsy also claimed his new-found cordiality toward his political opponents has gained
the continued cooperation of Hun Sen and the support of the King. "Now I am
on good terms with everybody. Now I can play this role as a middleman, as a peace
broker," he said.
A political advisor to the Second Prime Minister, Prak Sokhonn, said his boss' meeting
with Rainsy did not mark a new political strategy concerning the KNP, but a common
objective between the two parties to find a political solution in Cambodia.
"It is the will of Samdech Hun Sen. As head of the government, he has to cooperate
with every political leader, even if they are in opposition," Prak Sokhonn said.
"If it is a change, I think it is a positive one."
Prince Ranariddh, who is overseas attempting to bolster his international support,
reportedly told Rainsy by telephone that he will accept an amnesty from his father
right away and return to Cambodia immediately thereafter.
May Sam Oeun, the Prince's spokesman, said his boss will not recognize the court
case against him, but that he would not refuse a Royal amnesty and he would return
as soon as the threat of imprisonment is removed.
The question remains as to when and if the court case will go forward.
Military court officials had said that the court would hear the case in October and
November, but still no date has been set, according to Military Court Judge Ney Thol.
Contacted on Dec 16, he said witnesses and evidence are still being gathered to strengthen
the prosecution's case.
Sam Rainsy told reporters "the ball is in Hun Sen's court" now that the
amnesty question has been solved, but Hun Sen has claimed that the issue is out of
his hands, as the Constitution states the executive branch cannot interfere in the
However, legal observers have pointed out that the government, which brought charges
against Ranariddh, can legally and constitutionally withdraw them.
Several editorials published in the most recent issue of the King's royal bulletin
also point to an apparent double-standard in Hun Sen's dealings with the Prince.
One article cited Hun Sen's offer to pardon wanted resistance general Nhek Bun Chhay
if he will testify against the prince in court.
"Today, as he tries to sink... Ranariddh more than ever by disconnecting him
from his last resistance supporters, our Great Leader declared that he is ready to
give all of the well-earned rewards to those who abandon his mortal enemy and come
toward him, our absolute master."
Huon Kasik, widely believed to be a pen-name for the King (it is an anagram for K.
Sihanouk), added: "It is thus that the unpardonable General Nhek Bun Chhay,
head of the anti-Hun Sen military resistance, becomes pardonable, acceptable and
worthy of receiving substantial rewards from our Great Leader, who says he respects
absolutely the independence of the our judicial system."
Another columnist known for his biting attacks on nearly all of Cambodia's political
figures, Ruom Ritt, also took aim at those who have returned to work with Hun Sen
on organizing elections, a group that now includes Rainsy.
"Among Ranariddh's supporters [in Phnom Penh], ex-companions of the unfortunate
refugee who has been abroad since July 1997, there is a growing movement, especially
in recent days, which is pushing them toward a fruitful accommodation with the Supreme
Leader," Ruom Ritt wrote.
The jab may be targeted at Sam Rainsy, but the KNP president maintains that his actions
are driven by practicality and not a compromise of his principles.
"I have decided to work with the person in power regardless of political party
affiliations in order to promote the nation's interests," Rainsy said, explaining
that elections will be run on Hun Sen's clock so there is no other constructive choice
to bring about credible elections.
"Hun Sen has said that he will accept to lose in fair and free elections, not
win in unfair and unjust elections. If Hun Sen keeps his word this is meaningful.
Therefore, Hun Sen must cooperate with all Cambodian democrats inside or outside
the government to prepare the electoral system," Rainsy said.
The Second Prime Minister's words have been backed up by concrete action by the government.
The Ministry of Interior - which has been loathe to authorize KNP activities and
has never officially recognized the party - authorized Rainsy's Dec 7 peace march
in the capital and the Dec 14 KNP Congress.
Both events drew more than 4,000 supporters, including BLDP parliamentarian turned
KNP vice president Son Chhay and the party's largest voter base in Phnom Penh - garment
Rainsy held a white dove above his head at the climax of the congress and let it
go as a symbol of freedom and peace. Unfortunately one of the bird's wings was badly
clipped and it vainly struggled for only a few moments to stay aloft before flapping
to the ground.
Sam Rainsy should hope that his choice of symbols does not end up as a bad omen.