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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sihanouk Poised to Take Control

Sihanouk Poised to Take Control

Twenty-three years after he was driven from power, Prince Norodom Sihanouk appears

poised to reestablish himself as the undisputed elected leader of Cambodia after

successfully forcing the Cambodian parties and the international community to rewrite

the peace accords to allow for his ascention to power as president.

After months of debate, the decision to acquiesce to Sihanouk's demands to change

the mandate of the Paris Agreement to include presidential elections is likely to

fundamentally shift the balance of power towards Sihanouk during the crucial upcoming

months when Cambodia attempts to form a new government. The decision to rewrite the

peace accords comes as political violence, largely blamed on an increasingly desperate

ruling administration of the State of Cambodia, threatens the ability of the U.N.

to hold free elections and the Khmer Rouge formally refused to participate in the


In what some describe as an adroitly manoeuvered bloodless coup against the U. N.

Transitional Authority in Cambodia-in who's ability to guide Cambodia to peace and

stability Sihanouk has increasingly lost faith-UNTAC has agreed to conduct U.N. sponsored

presidential elections before an elected assembly has drafted a constitution. The

presidential election will be held in May at the same time as the constituent assembly


The implications of a newly rewritten peace plan are broad for the future organization

of Cambodia, and reflect a growing realization that the peace accords as they were

initially written have failed and there is a need to revise the mandate in order

to prevent the country from descending back into open conflict and partition.

It became clear in recent weeks that the Khmer Rouge would not return to the process,

effectively partitioning the country, and ending any hopes that the original intent

of the Paris peace accords to create national reunification and end the 20-year-old

conflict could succeed in it's mandate.

According to UNTAC officials and diplomats, the SOC launched what appeared to be

a centrally ordered campaign of political violence to intimidate and prevent opposing

parties from campaigning effectively, when it became clear to its leaders that free

elections would result in their ouster.

With the two biggest factions rapidly slipping out of the peace process, Sihanouk

wanted the latitude of real power to create a coalition, using the results of a constituent

assembly election only as a basis to form a government.

Assuming the legitimacy of a democratically elected presidency, Sihanouk is likely

to attempt to create a post- election government that will bring in the Khmer Rouge

as well as give the Hun Sen regime more power than they are expected to get through

the elections. He is expected to try to form a national reconciliation government

designed to create a foundation of stability. It is increasingly clear a democratically

elected assembly would be unable to manage.

"It is a philosophical debate about peace or democracy,''said one the Phnom

Penh-based Perm Five ambassadors, "Which is better? If we go to democracy without

national reconciliation, we go to war.''

Some Sihanouk watchers say it is also a culmination of years of patient and carefully

orchestrated obsession by the 70-year-old prince to avenge his overthrow and rehabilitate

his place in history.

But the withdrawal of the Khmer Rouge from the peace process in mid-1992-their refusal

to allow UNTAC access to areas of Cambodia under their control, the failure of the

U.N. to demobilize or disarm the armies, and an alarming rise in political violence

that led UNTAC chief Akashi last week to acknowledge that "the conditions do

not yet exist to hold free and fair elections,''-has led most participants to conclude

that drastic action was justified, if it could result in stopping the total collapse

of the accords.

The U.S. $2.8 billion Paris Peace Agreement called for the U.N. to assume control

over the key aspects of running the country by disarming and demobilizing the four

warring factions and creating a neutral political environment for elections in 1993.

The 120 seat constituent assembly would then have three months to draft a constitution

and form a government. There was no mention of presidential elections in the peace


Until now, Sihanouk has served as a figurehead but formally powerless head of the

Supreme National Council, the national reconciliation body which was created by the

peace accords to group the four factions and work with UNTAC until a new government

was elected.

Attempts by Sihanouk, with the support of Russia and France, to hold early presidential

elections well before the May constituent elections were met with strong opposition

by the other members of the U.N. security council-the U.S., China, and the United

Kingdom. Australia, also a key player in the peace process, was alarmed by the idea

as well.

It was speculated by some that the attempt was a thinly disguised plan to abandon

general elections, and form a provisional government with the legitimacy of a democratically

elected head of state, to save what Sihanouk and his allies felt was a hopeless cause

to create national reconciliation and stable government through the original U.N.


But Sihanouk's public announcement in early January that he was ceasing all cooperation

with UNTAC and the Phnom Penh regime of the State of Cambodia in the wake of orchestrated

political assassinations against the Royalist main opposition party led by Sihanouk's

son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, made opponents to presidential elections back down

and set into motion a series of summit's between Sihanouk, the Cambodian political

parties, and a series of regional and and big power countries, that culminated in

the announcement last week that presidential elections would be held in May in conjunction

with constituent assembly polls.

The decision by UNTAC and the powerful permanent five member countries of the U.N.

security council to accept simultaneous presidential and constituent assembly elections,

immediately rearranged the likely scenario for the structure of Cambodia's next government.

One big winner will likely be the Royalist opposition party FUNCINPEC, which is run

by Sihanouk's son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, now the likely next prime minister. FUNCINPEC

is widely viewed by Cambodians as the party of Prince Sihanouk, and simultaneous

presidential and constituent assembly elections are expected to secure the party's

ability to win the largest share of seats-if not the majority-in a national assembly,

as voters punch the ballot of Sihanouk and his perceived party.

The People's Party of the ruling Phnom Penh regime of the State of Cambodia, the

other major political party, is likely to be the big loser in the new scenario. Currently

in control of 80% of the country, the SOC has become increasingly aware in recent

months that free elections would result in their ouster, and are accused of launching

a campaign of political violence and intimidation against opposition parties-particularly

FUNCINPEC, in recent weeks. Internal UNTAC assessments of the political environment

since December have become increasingly pessimistic of the chances for free and fair

elections. The situation in one province, Battambang, was described as "alarming.

The population believes that SOC has undertaken a full fledged campaign of violent

political repression, thereby making it impossible for other provisionally-registered

parties to seriously conduct legitimate political activities....the population is

afraid to engage in any political discussions or activities."

The internal assesment, meant to inform senior UNTAC officials of the reality on

the ground in Cambodia and obtained by the Phnom Penh Post goes on to say that "Ung

Sami, the chairman of the provincial CPP and SOC committees is seen as blatently

non- cooperative with the electoral process. He seems to show no signs of a willingness

to change and participate properly with the process in the future....the population

believes that he is coordinating, or at least condoning, acts of violence against

his opponents."

Diplomats here say that SOC was hoping for immediate presidential elections, in which

Sihanouk, in an environment of deteriorating political violence in the countryside

would abandon the constituent assembly elections, and declare a provisional government,

retaining largely the administrative apparatus of SOC.

Earlier this month, before the declaration of presidential elections, Prime Minister

Hun Sen declared:"we have not found any measures to rescue the Paris Agreement

from collapse...Now it is obvious that the Cambodian problem will not be solved through

elections. The question is can voting take place at all.'' Such statements contributed

to Sihanouk's belief that he would have to have the formal power to offer political

deals to keep the factions from breaking totally from the road towards peace.

But, despite the SOC leadership's dwindling chances of retaining power at the polls,

Sihanouk is known to believe that the SOC administrative structures are the only

ones capable of running the organs of the state in a new government, and he is expected

to offer them concessions to induce them to remain in the process.

One of the primary missions of Sihanouk will likely be to induce the Khmer Rouge

back into the peace process by offering them significant representation in a new

government, despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge have refused to participate in

elections. With no seats in a constituent assembly, the Khmer Rouge would forfeit

any right to have a voice in a future government under the terms of the original

peace agreement. But under a Sihanouk presidency with strong presidential powers

that would likely include the right to appoint ministers, palace sources say that

Sihanouk will offer the Khmer Rouge positions in a Sihanouk-led government. With

presidential elections, some see it as a maneuver to bypass the impasse over the

Khmer Rouge: Both the legitimacy of the democratic process remains intact and the

Khmer Rouge become part of the government. "Presidential elections are the only

way to bring the Khmer Rouge back into the process,'' said Raoul Jenner, a longtime

Cambodia analyst who serves as an advisor to the European Community,"They see

Sihanouk as the only means to protect them from being excluded.''

In a Jan. 20 statement by Sihanouk outlining some of his intentions as president,

he declared that "with the Khmer Rouge, I am going to undertake patient and

repeated negotiations in order to lead them one way or another to not continue the

partitioning of Cambodia and to reintegrate (them) into the national community. A

government of Cambodia with PDK (Party of Democratic Kampuchea) participation is

envisagable," he concluded.

Such statements show a clear willingness by Sihanouk to form a government that gives

a voice and some power to those that would have no right to it through the election


The Khmer Rouge who have meticulously avoided being viewed as opposing Sihanouk since

their overthrow in 1978, will be put in a difficult position to be seen publicly

as opposing a government controlled by Sihanouk.

While a strong Sihanouk government may be Cambodia's only chance to avoid a total

collapse of it's tortured road toward peace, it privately raises concerns among some

countries and some Cambodian political parties, who are suspicious of Sihanouk's

commitment to the democratic process.

Except for the Royalist FUNCINPEC party, the three other factions who signed the

Paris agreement are run by leaders who have participated, at different times since

the 1960's, in engineering his overthrow, putting him under house arrest, or forcing

his exile. He was saved from a Khmer Rouge order to execute him only by the intervention

of Chinese leader Chou En-Lai in the mid-1970's.

But his wide popularity among the population is both respected and feared by all

the factions, and his absolute demand for public loyalty from all Cambodia personalities

is rarely broached.

But it is not forgotten that, when he was in power prior to1970 his opponents accused

him of using autocratic powers against them. Those who opposed Sihanouk have said

he jailed opponents unfairly, that his secret police were efficient and cruel, and

that he was surrounded by a sycophantic circle of corrupt elite. He also dissolved

parliament several times during disputes while head of state in the 1950's and 1960's.

It is assumed Sihanouk will demand a presidency with strong powers, and seek to eliminate

the powers of a national assembly that voted unanimously for his ouster in 1970.

As well as powers that will guarantee independence from a national assembly, he will

likely retain the power to appoint cabinet ministers. In a letter to U.S. Secretary

of State Eagleburger on Jan.15 he stated:"If one day I am elected by the Cambodian

people to the presidency of Cambodia, I will assume in place of H.E. Yasushi Akashi,

from UNTAC and the expanded Perm Five the powers of the soveriegn chief of state,

assuming their rights and powers to excersise, and I will assume all the responsibilities

which follow from the use of my powers as Cambodian chief of state.''

Such statements reflect a frustration with UNTAC's failure to secure peace in Cambodia,

but also reflect his long simmering anger at the United States who he blames for

engineering his overthrow in 1970, and blames ultimately for opening the door to

the 23 years of continuous destruction and suffering of his beloved Cambodia that

continues to the present.

Perhaps most importantly will be his role as commander in chief of the army. The

original peace plan called for Cambodia's armed factions to be disarmed, demobilized

and cantoned in mid- 1992 as a key part of the peace agreement. With the Khmer Rouge

refusal to cooperate with the U.N., the disarmament process was effectively abandoned

by UNTAC. Now with the State of Cambodia fielding more than 150,000 men under arms

and expected to lose power in elections, there is a likely scenario of the ousted

party with a large army and police intact, and a new government with virtually no

men under arms.

"Now we are going straight to elections with a lot of armed people. It is a

new situation completely contrary to the Paris accords,'' Prince Norodom Ranariddh

told the Post last week,"The new government will face a lot of military, police,

and tanks that belong to the opposition,'' he said.

This nightmare scenario in a country that has no democratic tradition and a recent

history of violence cries out for preemptive action. It is likely that the U.N. security

council will change the mandate to give the new president clear powers of commander-in-

chief of the army. The United Nations is expected to work closely with Sihanouk to

set the stage of a transition to a new national army immediately after elections.

With the agreement to hold presidential elections, the UN is tacitly acknowledging

that elections are no longer in itself the objective, but serve to guarantee that

Sihanouk will likely create a de facto coalition government that may well have little

reflection of the results of a constituent assembly vote. Constituent assembly elections

are now being viewed as no longer the goal of the peace accords but a tool to achieve

national reconstruction, national reconciliation, and peace. With the Khmer Rouge

refusing to participate and the current regime not likely to accept their inevitable

loss, the chances for bringing peace were slim and conflict loomed. A defacto quadripartite

government carved from elections as well as concessions to the political reality

of the powers of the two hardline factions and their implicit threats will combine

to seek the objective of stability. The decision to allow Sihanouk to gain the presidency

before a new government was formed is testament to his being universally viewed as

the only one who may be able to keep the country from descending, again, to anarchy

and warfare. It is also an admission that the Paris Peace Agreement and UNTAC could




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