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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sihanouk Back at the Helm

Sihanouk Back at the Helm

The days since the conclusion of U.N.-conducted elections have seen Cambodia descend

into what would seem a national embarrassment if the implications were not so depressing

for the country's future. In the wake of a solid defeat of the ruling Cambodian People's

Party in what was unanimously declared a free and fair election, State of Cambodia

Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 10 declared that the U.N. and foreign countries had

engineered a conspiracy of massive fraud and announced that "dissident figures"

in the CPP had seceded six eastern provinces, representing almost 40 percent of the

nation's territory, from central control in protest.

Behind the scenes a Byzantine soap opera centered around a feuding royal family came

to the surface. It pitted two half-brother princes, bitter enemies for years, vying

for political power and the allegiance of their father, who himself was obsessed

with avenging his deposition from power in a military coup more than 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, the U.S. $2.8 billion Paris peace agreement, the largest ever U.N. effort

of its kind, took a decided back seat to traditional Cambodian power politics, leaving

diplomats and U.N technocrats confused and muttering half-hearted protests as it

became all too clear that the principles of democracy had hardly taken root in this

fractured country.

By June 15, the secessionist movement had petered out, with Prince Norodom Chakrapong

and other senior CPP officials having fled the country to Vietnam.

But the several day period of instability had managed to tarnish the reputation of

many, particularly United Nation's Transitional Authority in Cambodia. chief Yasushi

Akashi and Hun Sen.

Akashi remained silent for more than 48 hours after the CPP officials announced their

secession plan, leaving many Cambodians wondering whose side UNTAC stood on- those

who had won the elections or those who opposed them. Many senior UNTAC officials

and others were appalled at UNTACs unwillingness to take a strong stand and lack

of political leadership in the face of CPP officials who were threatening violence

against UNTAC and attacking opposition party figures who had put their faith in UNTAC

promises that they would be protected if they showed support for opposition parties.

On June 15 Akashi announced that he "highly appreciated the efforts of Hun Sen

and reaffirmed UNTAC's intention to continue its thorough and objective inquiry into

complaints concerning the elections." Many UNTAC officials were appalled that

Akashi would complement the CPP official who was said to be behind the secessionist

movement and give legitimacy to the CPP election complaints that had been rejected

by every independent observer and all the UNTAC senior staff, according to UNTAC

officials.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC party was declared the winner of elections by

a 7.25 percent margin over the Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party. FUNCINPEC

received more than 45 percent of the tally to CPP's 38 percent. The republican Buddhist

Liberal Democratic Party received slightly more than 3 percent of the votes. The

votes translated into 58 seats for FUNCINPEC, 51 for the CPP, 10 for the BLDP, and

one for an obscure FUNCINPEC offshoot party, Molinaka, in the 120 seat constituent

assembly. UNTAC, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and all international

observers declared the results fair.

But immediately the CPP began jockeying to force a power-sharing agreement that would

have effectively voided the election in order to give them more power than was accorded

them through popular polls. With the CPP threatening coups and military intervention,

Sihanouk unilaterally assumed full powers on June 4, in a "government"

that collapsed within 24 hours in the face of opposition from the victorious FUNCINPEC

and many of the key foreign countries who contended that the move violated the terms

of the peace accords and acceded to blackmail from the losers.

Faced with the unfamiliar concept of giving up power based simply on popular will,

senior CPP officials on June 6 formerly announced that they had seized control of

six eastern provinces bordering on Vietnam. The secessionist move was led by Prince

Norodom Chakrapong, a son of Sihanouk and deputy prime minister in the CPP government,

Sin Song, the head of the national security ministry which controls the CPP secret

police, and Bou Thong, a senior CPP standing committee member. But some analysts

agreed that the secessionist move had the sanction of Hun Sen and the CPP leadership

and was little more than a political ploy using military leverage to force a power

sharing agreement that would give them more power than accorded by the elections.

Nevertheless, the secessionists ordered UNTAC to leave the area they deemed the "King

Father Autonomous zone", and hundreds of opposition party officials fled to

the jungle or to Phnom Penh. FUNCINPEC and BLDP leaders claimed that dozens of their

supporters have been killed in recent days since the break-off. UNTAC evacuated it's

non-essential civilian personnel but refused to withdraw the U.N. military, who remained

in a tense standoff throughout the area.

While observers said that the movement was doomed to failure from the outset-it had

virtually no popular support and no chance of sympathy from any international sector-it

was not unexpected. Cambodia has no tradition of peaceful transfer of power, power

sharing, or even loyal opposition.

The concept of sharing power with enemies is alien to the former communists in the

CPP leadership and to modern Cambodian political culture. Asian diplomats said Chakrapong,

during a visit to Beijing in May, responded to a diplomat who asked him what the

CPP reaction to losing the elections as: "Remember Burma."

But with Prince Chakrapong taking the lead as the public head of the opposition movement,

it forced to the surface a long-standing bitter feud with his half brother Ranariddh

and a struggle within the Royal family and palace entourage on who to bestow support

to.

Chakrapong, 47, a notoriously wealthy deputy prime minister in the State of Cambodia

government was in control of several lucrative portfolios including tourism, aviation,

and industry, has long been a thorn in his half brother's side.

Upon his successful electoral victory, Ranariddh immediately demanded that Chakrapong

be banished from any future political role.

"How can I work with Prince Chakrapong, who holds no other thought than to eliminate

or kill me?," Ranariddh asked last week.

Chakrapong was a military guerrilla commander, technically under Ranariddh's command,

fighting against the Vietnamese and the current government of which he is now a senior

official. In mid October 1991, only days before the formal signing of the Paris peace

accords, Chakrapong, after a final break in the long standing feud, attempted to

take his more than 1500 troops and defect to the Khmer Rouge, according to Ranariddh

and senior Khmer Rouge officials. After approaching Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok

with his proposal and being rejected by the Khmer Rouge leadership, he appeared in

Phnom Penh the following week after negotiating his defection to the State of Cambodia.

The State of Cambodia, while wary of Chakrapong's reputation as a loose canon, accepted

him because it was thought it would give them leverage within the royal family, and

would be useful in elections where royalty is widely revered among the peasant masses.

In the wake of Ranariddh's election victory and before the secessionist putsch, palace

sources say that Sihanouk supported sending Chakrapong to Kuala Lumpur as the new

ambassador as a way to resolve the conflict. Chakrapong has developed close business

relationships with influential Malaysian finance, aviation, and other companies since

assuming his role with the CPP, according to CPP and other sources.

Observers here say that in the aftermath of the secessionist movement, deals will

be made to divide real power in an interim authority while the newly elected constituent

assembly drafts a constitution and creates a new government in three months as mandated

by the peace agreement.

On June 14, in the same national assembly building where Sihanouk's 1970 overthrow

was approved, the newly elected assembly convened and voted "unanimously and

on behalf of the Khmer people" to appoint Sihanouk back to the position he held

23 years ago. The assembly passed a resolution declaring "null and void the

illegal coup d'état of 18 March 1970" and vested "full and special

powers inherent in his capacity and duties as Head of State in order that he may

save our nation...".

Sihanouk, who is known to be fixated on officially avenging his overthrow, was said

to be deeply moved by the resolution, sent a handwritten note to the assembly members

calling the move "an historical event that has incomparable value for my life,

that restores my honour to the people and nation who I will serve until the end of

my life."

While UNTAC and diplomats could not figure out exactly what legal powers the assembly

had bestowed on Sihanouk, it was clear that the move helped to encourage peace and

stability in the coming weeks as behind the scenes deals, in which Sihanouk will

play the pivotal role, are cut for power sharing.

It is said that SOC Prime Minister Hun Sen may be dropped from a senior position

in an interim arrangement after objections by Ranariddh. Hun Sen's apparent declining

power within the CPP, and in the wake of his obstructionist role against the election

results alienated former allies.

Ranariddh accused Hun Sen of being "personally responsible for acts of killings

and violence" against FUNCINPEC during the run-up to elections and said he could

not work with him in the future.

CPP strongman Chea Sim last week proposed a power sharing arrangement with Ranariddh

that would make Sihanouk president, Ranariddh first prime minister and Chea Sim second

prime minister. The Chea Sim proposal made no mention of Hun Sen and was thought

to reflect a new CPP position that sacrificed Hun Sen.

At a meeting at the palace on June 15, Sihanouk proposed a power-sharing arrangement

between the CPP, FUNCINPEC, and the BLDP that was said to be as follows: Sihanouk

would assume the position of prime minister, with an equal role for Ranariddh and

the CPP as deputies.

This arrangement would also divide subordinate power among FUNCINPEC 45 percent,

CPP 45 percent and BLDP 10 percent. Other proposals included giving FUNCINCPEC the

defence portfolio, Son Sann the finance portfolio, and the interior/national security

portfolio to the CPP.

A constitutional drafting committee was proposed of six seats for FUNCINPEC, five

seats for the CPP, and one seat for the BLDP.

But it was cautioned that these are initial proposals and that it was unlikely that

FUNCINPEC would accept that they be given equal status with the CPP given that they

were the victors in the polling results.

The Post has learned that Ranariddh held private talks with Khmer Rouge President

Khieu Samphan on June 13 in which the Khmer Rouge for the first time laid out their

position on the post election period.

In an interview with Ranariddh on 14 June, he told the Post that "it was the

most concrete, specific meeting we have had. It was very, very good."

He quoted Samphan as saying "we will turn over our territory to your new legal

government," dropping their demands for a quadripartite formula coalition government.

He said the Khmer Rouge desired no senior positions or portfolios, and offered Ranariddh

their full support. Ranariddh said "we accept them as Cambodians and part of

the Cambodian nation.

He said that Khieu Samphan relayed that the Khmer Rouge required that the SOC accept

that FUNCINPEC won the elections and that FUNCINPEC have superior power in any new

government as a reflection of the polls. Khmer Rouge sources confirmed that they

supported Ranariddh assuming control over the key ministries of finance and defence

in a new government. It was said that FUNCINPEC will be willing to concede the interior

portfolio to the CPP.

Despite the tumultuous events of the last two weeks, which included secessionist

movements, failed provisional governments, the restoration of Sihanouk to his role

before a coup that ushered in 23 years of non-stop warfare and suffering that has

left millions dead, and royal drama befitting a B grade movie, analysts say the peace

process is basically back on track.

The electoral victors, FUNCINPEC, appears to be assuming their role as winners with

the weight of the international community and widespread popular support sustaining

them in the face of desperate attempts by other political forces to retain power

denied them by through an unfamiliar democratic process that has left many of them

confused.

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