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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Royalists claim gains as defection wars continue

Royalists claim gains as defection wars continue

Officials from the royalist Funcinpec party claimed on April 24 that three more legislators

from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) would defect ahead of July's general election.

Steering Committee member Ok Socheat said SRP legislators Monh Siyonn, Sith Ibrahim

and Sam Sundoeun would all cross to Funcinpec on April 25. Socheat's claim met with

a mixed response from the three men.

Ibrahim told the Post on April 24 that he would not defect to Funcinpec. Sundoeun

said he might defect, but added he could leave politics entirely if "they don't

appreciate" his past efforts. Siyonn said: "I am staying for now in the

Sam Rainsy Party, but tomorrow I might change my mind."

Senior royalists were buoyed by the news, saying their countermoves against increasingly

vocal attacks by the opposition on their integrity over the past year proved their

party was not crumbling.

"It was our objective to get seven MPs [from the SRP] and now we have them,"

said Ok Socheat. "Seven good MPs compared to the six we lost to the Sam Rainsy

Party."

Socheat added that MP Ismail Yusof and Neou Phirith, an under-secretary of state

at the Ministry of Social Affairs - both of whom defected to the SRP in March - wanted

to return to the royalist fold. Yusof said he had "no comment" to make

on the matter, and the Post was unable to contact Phirith by press time.

The SRP has spent much of the past year describing Funcinpec as a sinking ship after

that party's poor showing in last year's commune elections.

The opposition charged that incompetent leadership by Funcinpec's Prince Norodom

Ranariddh had rendered the royalist party weak and irrelevant in its coalition with

the Cambodian People's Party.

The disputes between the two parties have been characterized by claims and counter-claims

of defections of senior and junior party members. Rainsy recently predicted more

would follow.

But with three months to go to polling day, Funcinpec has decided to fight back.

That much was clear in a letter written on April 3 from Funcinpec's Vora Huykanthoul,

secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development. The letter was addressed

to other party members.

"We decided that we have had enough of it! We refuse to be sitting ducks,"

Huykanthoul wrote. His letter accused Rainsy of being a selfish, undemocratic rabble-rouser,

and listed reasons not to vote for the SRP.

"If anybody, it is Mr Rainsy himself who exploits the misery of the people,"

Huykanthoul wrote. "He is keen on stirring unrest and causing the people to

take to the street to protest, to strike, to demonstrate, etc. However, every time

the going gets tough, there goes Mr. Rainsy, the first to flee the scene, leaving

those he is responsible for getting to the streets to scramble for themselves."

Senior Funcinpec officials said the flow of defectors had now ceased. Mu Sochua,

the Minister of Women's and Veterans' Affairs, said it was unlikely that more senior

members would leave. Others on the Steering Committee agreed. Ok Socheat again denied

rumors that MP Princess Norodom Vacheara and Senate second vice-president Nhiek Bun

Chhay would defect.

Sochua told the Post on April 23 that the SRP's strategy to weaken her party was

"not democratic", but felt the defections of high profile Funcinpec members

did not affect the party. She claimed that for every one who left, 10,000 grassroots

members went the other way.

The minister said she was most encouraged by defections from low-level SRP members

to Funcinpec. She estimated that 300,000 grassroots supporters had defected in the

provinces because they felt isolated and neglected.

"At the base level, we're really moving forward," said Sochua. "You

cannot win an election if people at the base don't feel they're being taken care

of."

She then presented several people at Funcinpec headquarters who claimed to be recent

defectors. They said they felt disenfranchised from Rainsy's policies.

"I thought the Sam Rainsy Party wasn't growing because Sam Rainsy only looks

out for the interests of himself, he doesn't care about other people," said

one man called Sou Dara.

Funcinpec's optimism was dismissed by the SRP. Opposition chief of cabinet, Phi Thach,

insisted that more "major political figures" would soon defect. He said

MPs, secretaries of state, and under-secretaries of state were all lining up to join

the SRP.

Phi Thach said he could not confirm whether the defections and counter-defections

claimed by Funcinpec were true, but remained philosophical about further potential

departures to the royalists.

"Surely [if they leave] they aren't happy with the[SRP] or they aren't happy

with the party's leadership and they try to seek a new political shelter to fight

for their political aims," said Phi Thach.

"But we only see that the Sam Rainsy Party is becoming stronger and stronger

than before," he concluded. "And this leads us to expect that Sam Rainsy

will be in the second position [after the vote] at least."

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