In the wake of Cambodia's historic U.N elections which dealt a stunning blow
to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), who balked at accepting the results,
Prince Norodom Sihanouk intervened briefly, attempting to assume full control over
the functions of government during the now crucial transition phase. The move was
made to avoid the threat military intervention by the CPP losers, unhappy with the
prospect of relinquishing power.
But in a flurry of behind the scenes maneuvers from Jun 2-4 , Sihanouk's attempt
to form an interim government to stave off open confrontation collapsed. He warned
in an open letter to Cambodians on Jun. 4 that he refuses "responsibility for
what could happen for bloodletting and tragedy to our unfortunate fatherland and
to our unlucky people."
His ominous missive came only hours after a palace announcement on Jun. 3 said he
had "officially assumed the functions of chief of state, president of the council
of minister of minister s of the National Government of Cambodia, supreme commander
of the armed forces, the auxiliary armed forces, and the Cambodia police forces."
State of Cambodia (SOC) spokesman Khieu Kannarith stated on Jun. 3 that now "there
is no SOC and no FUNCINPEC, only one national government. [SOC] ceased to exist
Sihanouk's initial declaration gave FUNCINPEC leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh and
CPP leader Hun Sen equal status as deputy prime ministers. But, privately FUNCINPEC
officials were bitter at the compromise, calling the deal "blackmail" by
the CPP and a "betrayal of the will of the Cambodia people." They said
that the FUNCINPEC victory should be clearly reflected and objected to the equal
footing between the two main parties in the transitional government. But the plan
collapsed within 24 hours.
Sihanouk, in his about face, was said to be responding to reservations by not only
FUNCINPEC, but U.N. officials and key big powers. They were said to object to what
some thought amounted to a 'constitutional coup' and clearly outside of the process
of the Paris Peace agreement. U.N officials complained that they were unaware of
Sihanouk's surprise announcemet of assuming control of all key functions of the state.
Some big powers say that there is also in-fighting between members of the U.N. perm
five countries over the formation of an interim power structure. Others saw Sihanouk
with full control in this period as necessary to prevent deterioration into open
The struggle to achieve stability in the weeks ahead, with lame duck powers in place,
and nervous political leaders in control of armies, left the situation fluid at press
time and a pall over the country. Many opposition figures have gone into hiding and
the U.N. has beefed up security of its own officials and facilities.
At first it seemed too good to be true. Cambodia's first truly democratic election
went so smoothly with an astonishing 90 percent turnout of registered voters that
the U.N. official and ordinary Cambodians alike were congratulating themselves. Then
came the morning-after: hard reality, doubts and feelings of deja vu.
As returns of the May 23-28 elections were announced it quickly became apparent those
who lost were possibly willing to fight to retain power. The CPP rejected the running
poll tally by UNTAC, which showed it lost the popular vote by about 45 percent to
38 percent and that FUNCINPEC would gain a clear edge in seats of the constituent
assembly. SOC claimed widespread fraud and rumors swept Phnom Penh that SOC was poised
to arrest opposition figures and effectively state a coup against UNTAC and the election
Meanwhile, the radical Khmer Rouge (KR) who had vainly called for an election boycott,
remained unusually quiet. The KR for months had predicted that if FUNCIPEC won, the
CPP would refuse to turn over power. Such as scenario, analysts say, would give new
life to the hard-line ultra-nationalist group.
There was a real danger that the main losers in a surprisingly peaceful poll, would,
once again, be the Cambodian people who, while obviously keen to have their voices
heard, were in danger of being ignored by ignored their political leaders whose only
concern seemed to be to hold on to power.
As the poll result became clear, Prince Norodom Sihanouk took center stage in behind
the scenes power negotiations. Sihanouk, who returned to Cambodia from China of the
eve of the election, welcomed the election as "a tremendous and historic success,"
while saying the KR had suffered "a historic defeat and they will not recover
from such a blow." Sources say that he intends to offer the KR a chance to participate
in a new government, but all immediate focus was on staving off immediate threats
posed by the CPP and their security and armed services.
On May 31 Prince Sihanouk and CPP strongman Chea Sim met at the Palace. Chea Sim
and the CPP were said to relay to Sihanouk that unless a deal was struck it remained
possible that powerful figures within the ruling regime might not accept a transfer
of real power. Sihanouk was said to be warned by other sources that unless he intervened
the possibility of a military coup similar to the aftermath of Burmese elections
was real. Hundreds of FUNCINPEC workers abandoned the party offices around the country,
many going into hiding, after party leaders warned of the possibility of mass arrests.
CPP's disgruntlement at the prospect of losing or at least being forced to share
power did not surprise many observers.
"We are now seeing a very bad case of nerves," said a senior Western diplomat
in Phnom Penh, commenting on the CPP's insistence that there had been irregularities
in the polling and calling for new elections in at least four provinces. The CPP
had not fared well in areas where it expected to win.
"We will try to calm these nerves," the diplomat said, adding that top
officials from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and other key players
in Cambodia such as Japan, Indonesia and Australia, planned to meet in Phnom Penh
shortly after the final election count to endorse the election and plan future assistance
to the new government.
But the failure of the Paris agreement to carry out the disarmament of the armies
of the various factions means that the CPP retains effective control of the armed
forces, security service, and police exceeding 200,000 under arms, while FUNCINPEC
has virtually none under arms. In the Cambodian context of power politics, that could
spell disaster, especially because the U.N. has no mandate to force a transfer of
The CPP is alleging that ballot boxes have been tampered with, indelible ink on voter's
fingers is washable and safe havens for ballot counting have not, in fact, been safe.
"Because of these complications, CPP/SOC is forced to conclude that it cannot
recognize that the election process has guaranteed the fairness and justice of the
results." said a government statement interrupting programs on state -run Cambodian
TV on the night of May 31.
Increasing the tension, SOC spokesman Khieu Kannatith told a press conference the
following day that people should remain calm and quiet. "We get many indications
there may be uprisings and insurrections," he added. "The situation may
get out of control-we have asked the army to take every step possible to prevent
Sources say that elements within the army, party and security forces have long said
that they would not turn over power in the event of an election loss. No one took
seriously the CPP allegations of election fraud, and UNTAC officials and diplomats
say that it is a bald attempt to thwart the results of the election.
The Post has learned, according to diplomats and intelligence sources, that the CPP
has drawn up a list of opposition figures, mainly FUNCINPEC officials, giving the
go ahead for the army to intervene and mass arrests of political opposition figures
on May 31, as the first results showed that the CPP was losing to FUNCINPERC. The
threat of such an action remains, the sources say.
UNTAC officials say that the move is made even more outrageous given the months of
political intimidation and assassination by the CPP, primisnister against FUNCINPEC,
have clearly translated into giving the party an already illegitimately high percentage
of the votes.
A CPP final rejection of the results of the election would be viewed as the work
of a group of men with no legitimacy and motivated purely by hunger for power. Importantly,
it would prevent the international community from bestowing aid or legitimacy, and
force FUNCINPEC, the KR, and Sihanouk back into an alliance in exile. Further, analysts
say, it would spark wide scale unrest throughout Cambodia, and such a government
would have little chance of survival.
Such a move by the CPP would infuse new life into the KR, by giving them back their
old allies that the democratic process in recent months has deprived them of. It
would certainly give the KR a new base of support that has seriously eroded in recent
months, to renew civil war.
Diplomatic sources said they had feared problems, if as now seems likely, the CPP
was forced by the election into a power sharing arrangement with FUNCINPEC. They
say a major problem is the Paris accords did not adequately address the prospect
of a political vacuum in the immediate aftermath of the election, with the CPP administration
remaining in place while an elected constituent assembly draws up a new constitution
and forms a new government by the end of August.
The constitution requires a two-thirds majority to be ratified, which must be done
within three months of the elections. It is only then that the constituent assembly
is transformed into a national assembly and a new government is formed.
An unofficial tally of the seat allocation for the Constituent Assembly gives FUNCINPEC
58, the CPP 51, the BLDP 10 and the Molinaka party 1.
It is clear that neither FUNCINPEC nor the CPP will have a two-thirds majority and
will be forced to work together despite their profound antagonism. This is made even
more clear by the very poor showing of all the other 18 opposition parties that participated
in the election.
The BLPD, which was backed with tens of millions of dollars of covert U.S, Singaporean,
Chinese and other aid through the 1980s when its military wing, the Khmer People's
National Liberation Front fought from the Thai border coalition with FUCINPEC and
the KR, petered out with unceremonious internal bickering even in the final days
of the election campaign.
Diplomats here hope that the CPP reaction in the days after the election represents
only temporary jitters, and that they will come back to get on with the already difficult
takes of organizing a transition.
"It seems to me that one hopes all of Cambodia's political leaders will have
seen a message in this vote, that instead of problems, we want to fond solutions."
U.S. Chief of Mission Charles Twining told the Post.
Diplomats and Cambodian officials say that the importance of the role of Prince Sihanouk
will remain crucial in coming weeks. He remains the sole Cambodian official who garners
the respect and relative allegiance of all the parties, and all eyes will remain
on his ability to balance and check the forces contending for power in the weeks