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Nhek Bun Chhay, deputy president of Funcinpec, attends a party congress early last year in Phnom Penh.
Nhek Bun Chhay, deputy president of Funcinpec, attends a party congress early last year in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

Roiled royalist Bun Chhay leaving the fold

Nhek Bun Chhay and Prince Norodom Ranariddh are going their separate ways – again.

Bun Chhay, deputy president of Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party, said yesterday that he is leaving the party to form his own, the Khmer National United Party (KNUP).

The announcement comes 13 months after he pledged to put aside his differences with party president Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

“We found that we cannot work together with the prince. Therefore, we decided to establish a new party in order to avoid internal disputes within Funcinpec,” Bun Chhay told reporters at his home yesterday morning.

He claimed KNUP has representatives in all 25 provinces of Cambodia, although he has yet to submit party registration documents to the Ministry of Interior.

Phouk Kung, president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, said the development bodes poorly for the struggling royalists.

“Funcinpec has always been a party of struggles among the top leadership, and this will deal another major blow to the party,” he said. “I don’t think this will be in the interest of any of the leaders.

There’s also deep distrust over things that happened in the past . . . there’s so many problems. In a way, this was to be expected really.”

Kung’s sentiments were echoed by veteran analyst Chea Vannath, who laughed before saying, “Wow, I’m not surprised. Funcinpec had problems since they returned to Cambodia and competed in the elections in 1993. They’ve had ongoing problems.”

Speaking at yesterday’s press conference, Bun Chhay said, “A year after the reconciliation of members of the royalist Funcinpec, I found that the procedure of unity has failed again due to the old matters of nepotism, partisanship and a background of internal disputes.”

Last January, after a nine-year absence in which he launched his eponymous Norodom Ranariddh Party and the short-lived and Community of Royalist People’s Party, Ranariddh returned to Funcinpec. The party he once led as prime minister has not held a single parliamentary seat since the 2013 election.

Bun Chhay, whose relationship with the prince dates back to their time in the 1980s as guerrilla commanders in Funcinpec’s ANKI militant wing, initially appeared to welcome Ranariddh back into the fold, but the veneer of cordiality quickly wore thin.

By February 2015, Bun Chhay was accusing Ranariddh of attempting to “dismantle” the party’s leadership. Tensions between the two continued to escalate throughout the year, each taking shots at the other through the press.

Bun Chhay and Ranariddh’s inability to play nicely is down to each lacking the ability to dominate the other, according to analyst Vannath.

“[Neither] of them have much stronger leadership than the other. It seems like Bun Chhay considers himself an important person in Funcinpec or at least at an equal footing with the prince, not like the CPP with Hun Sen, who has a very strong leadership where everyone just follows him,” she said.

“In Funcinpec . . . it’s more of a competition.”Last weekend, an anonymous letter surfaced on a local news portal lambasting the prince’s leadership of Funcinpec. Bun Chhay denied being its author but admitted opinions expressed in it chimed with his own.

As to what comes next, Vannath thinks it “very possible” Bun Chhay will align his new party with the ruling CPP. “He used to have a kind of good relationship for years working with the CPP,” she said.

Yesterday evening, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan refused to tip the party’s hand. “I dare not comment whether the CPP will keep its alliance with Funcinpec or the new party led by Nhek Bun Chhay. I don’t know which; it depends on the leaders of the CPP.”

Bun Chhay will have his hands full over the coming weeks collecting the 4,000 thumbprints needed to register KNUP with the Interior Ministry. He is confident, though.

“We will not face any obstacle, and we will become good sellers to our clients in the challenging market of eliminating land disputes, eliminating corruption and [protecting] territorial sovereignty as considered in our political platform,” he said at yesterday’s press conference.

Multiple Funcinpec officials including Prince Ranariddh were not reachable.

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