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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Samdech Balks at Heading Coalition

Samdech Balks at Heading Coalition

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

today."

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

conflict.

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

results.

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

power.

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

these actions."

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

ahead.

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