DOZENS of politicians and high-profile figures - including King Norodom Sihanouk
- returned to Phnom Penh in recent days, while the problem of deposed Prince Norodom
Ranariddh seemed no closer to a solution.
King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh Dec 3 for the first time since fighting rocked
the city in July - an earlier visit to Cambodia had been restricted to Siem Reap
- in what appeared to be the culmination of attempts to normalize the political atmosphere.
A trickle of high-profile returnees, which began with parliamentarians Ing Kieth,
Tao Seng Huor, Om Radsady and Son Chhay in mid-October, has broadened into a flood
of self-exiles who are returning to look into the prospects of free and fair elections
scheduled for next year.
Khmer Nation Party president Sam Rainsy, a Funcinpec advance team of MPs and party
officials, and political dissident and former CPP figure Pen Sovann are among those
who returned recently.
On December 1-2, 25 members of the Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD) arrived - on
the King's recommendation - to test the political waters and see whether they can
arrange for the safe return of all other self-exiled politicians.
"We are here just to explore the new political environment, whether it is conducive
enough for the Cambodian politicians in exile to return and whether the members of
parliament can resume [their work]," said delegation leader Prince Sisowath
Sirirath, Cambodia's Ambassador to the UN and a Ranariddh loyalist.
In a Dec 2 interview, he said he also came to discuss Ranariddh's future. "The
whole world...has said the elections will not be credible without the Prince. I am
here to plead with [Hun Sen] to take into account the requests... of those who want
to see Cambodia born again."
Asked when Ranariddh might return, Sirirath replied with a sour laugh: "Only
one man can answer that question."
Hun Sen has repeatedly said that Ranariddh must face the Phnom Penh Military Court
on charges of illegally importing arms and colluding with the Khmer Rouge, while
Ranariddh has said any such trial would be politically biased.
Ranariddh's claim that the judiciary will not mete out equal justice to him was supported
by his father, King Sihanouk, in a Nov 26 interview published in his monthly bulletin.
"Without taking into account that he is my son, I think that [the court case]
is not fair to Norodom Ranariddh. A court in Cambodia must judge him and convict
him while those who horribly tortured and very cruelly executed some forty-odd [Ranariddh
loyalists] between July and October 1997, are not sought, unmasked and will never
appear before a court," the King wrote.
There is an "evident lack of fairness", the King continued, adding that
the people of Cambodia should have a chance to judge Ranariddh at the ballot box
While Sirirath said there are signs that Hun Sen "is opening up to people with
different ideas" and discussing the possibility of Ranariddh's return, he added
that the issue remains thorny. "[Hun Sen] says the problem is out of his hands,
and it is in the hands of the military court. That is the only sticking point at
the moment... He still wants Prince Ranariddh to be brought to justice."
Prince Sirirath said that the Second Prime Minister did seem to offer a small ray
of hope during a Dec 2 meeting with UCD members. "He said jokingly that the
Royal Government has brought people to court, but that the Royal Government always
loses the cases. Who knows, he might be found innocent."
Sirirath laughed off rumors that he was being offered the position of Foreign Minister
in order to woo his allegiances away from Ranariddh.
"I will remain very faithful to [Ranariddh]. He is my boss, he is my cousin
and he is my friend," said Sirirath, who was scheduled to return to Bangkok
Dec 4 to report to Ranariddh and the members of the UCD before returning to his duties
in New York.
Meanwhile, in comments broadcast on radio Dec 2, Hun Sen said that the returnees
face more danger from the AIDS virus in Tuol Kok - Phnom Penh's largest brothel district
- than from their political enemies.
Sirirath seemed to agree that some of the returnees felt safe from political violence.
He said many of his 25-member delegation would remain in Cambodia - as was planned
before their arrival - and that they feel safe enough to go out to dinner "without
While he suggested that the present environment may not necessarily last, he said
that 14 MPs who remain abroad hope to return ahead of the electoral campaign - at
least seven weeks before polls scheduled for May 23.
Another politician who felt safe enough to return was Pen Sovann, a former leader
of the Vietnamese-backed government installed in 1979 who was ousted and imprisoned
in Vietnam for 10 years, and now a staunch critic of Hun Sen. After three months
abroad, Sovann returned to Phnom Penh Dec 3, and was greeted by 30-40 supporters
and half a dozen military police, according to a human rights worker.
But at least three high-profile Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) MPs loyal
to Son Sann appear unlikely to return unless they receive further guarantees that
they can campaign freely in next year's election.
Pol Ham, Kem Sokha and National Assembly Vice President Son Soubert do not believe
that the political climate is yet good enough for them to return, according to two
of the BLDP colleagues.
"There is no good reason for them to return ... because there is no positive
response from the government," said Son Chhay, a BLDP MP who returned to Cambodia
last month. He explained that a court decision effectively taking away the BLDP name
and logo from party founder Son Sann and giving it to Hun Sen's political ally, Ieng
Mouly, effectively left them without the political space to work.
"They don't know if they can have a party, if they can campaign in the provinces,"
he said, adding that they could not even broadcast to the country because their radio
equipment was looted or "disappeared" in July.
Thach Reng, the only BLDP parliamentarian loyal to Son Sann who remained in Cambodia
since July, confirmed that his three colleagues abroad do not intend to return until
all other political and military officials are allowed back. He also highlighted
that they are mapping out a different strategy from their Khmer Nation Party and
Funcinpec allies in the UCD. "They want to be different from the rest,"
Ranariddh, for his part, is slated to begin a 9-day trip to the US - which has proven
to be his most potent ally since July - to drum up more foreign support for his return,
before visiting France and Germany, according to his personal representative to Washington,
Meanwhile, the government appears to have backed down on a plan to replace 12 self-exiled
under-secretaries of state who have remained loyal to Ranariddh.
A Nov 23 Reuters article quoted Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith
as saying that 19 officials would be given under-secretary of state positions - 12
of them to replace Funcinpec officials who had been away from work since July. "When
the officials are not working, the co-premiers can replace them," Kanharith
said at the time.
But Kanharith contradicted his previous statements when asked Dec 2 whether undersecretaries
Lu Laysreng and May Sam Oeun - who were part of the UCD delegation that arrived on
December 1 - still held their positions
"All of them can keep their posts. We are not replacing them," he said.
"We replaced [murdered Defense and Interior officials] Krouch Yoeum and Ho Sok.
The people who died, we replace them. All the rest stay."
He said that all of the rest of the appointments were for newly-created positions,
explaining: "We appointed new posts. You have like a vacuum, if we don't appoint
new under-secretaries, the seats are vacant and people say the CPP has the upper