Return generates expectations in certain quarters and concern in others.
Former King Norodom Sihanouk, who has just completed a first phase of treatment for
cancer, is set to spend two months in his beloved Cambodia before more health tests
The former king has been away for six months, and despite his illness and no longer
being constitutional monarch, he has maintained a profound interest in political
That Sihanouk remains a factor in Cambodian politics cannot be ignored. It is therefore
no surprise that when news emerged of his planned return, it generated great expectations
in certain quarters and concern in others.
Pressure has been building in the past few weeks. There are expectations that Sihanouk,
in his sunset years and without his constitutional constraints, will become more
actively involved in addressing sensitive issues - especially border agreements signed
between Cambodia and Vietnam at the time that Vietnamese forces were in the country.
Sihanouk had never recognized these border agreements; this is well known. Thus,
his recent surprise appointment as chairman of the Supreme National Council on Border
Affairs raised hope among his supporters that the old pacts might be cast aside and
new ones negotiated.
This expectation is over-ambitious - the council is advisory in nature and does not
have the authority to negotiate treaties.
In any case, council decisions require a consensus of all seven members. This makes
it ineffectual, given that the council is as divided and entrenched in its views
on this subject as are other politicians.
Because of this, a faction that includes opposition party leader Sam Rainsy has been
agitating for the council to be granted enhanced powers to enable Sihanouk to lead
the charge on border issues.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen is too astute a politician and seasoned political fighter
not to have recognized the challenges being posed and the proxy battles being fought.
He has categorized the agitation to empower the council as a direct challenge to
his own authority as the elected head of government.
On June 19, he established a national committee on border issues.
Tellingly, the 20-member committee, headed by Mr Hun Sen, has been empowered to negotiate
border-related issues and sign agreements with neighbors - the very same power that
was sought for Sihanouk.
There are two requirements: The committee needs Cabinet approval before it acts and
has to report its activities to Sihanouk's council. The latter is basically a pro-forma.
This was a deft move, also meant to demonstrate that power rests with the elected
Cabinet and that its approval is required for negotiations with foreign countries.
These moves and countermoves reveal a great similarity between the former king and
the prime minister. One major reason for their survival in the highly dynamic world
of Cambodian politics is that they both understand power. They are master players,
and both are committed nationalists.
The day after the new committee was established, Sihanouk issued a statement saying
he would not involve himself in politics during his stay in Phnom Penh.
He now holds the key as to how his short stay will turn out, and he may well refuse
to be drawn.
However, two months on the sidelines of major events might seem an eternity for the
indefatigable former king.
The writer, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.