T HE Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy, Cambodia's first independent "think tank",
disintegrated this week after a leadership fight which led King Norodom Sihanouk
to revoke permission for the academy to bear his name.
The drama began when founder Thach Bunroeun fired academy president Everett Kleinjans
and took over the job himself, leading Kleinjans and three other senior academics
to pass a no confidence motion in Bunroeun.
Maintaining that they were the legitimate management of the academy, the staff delivered
an ultimatum - either Bunroeun resign or they would leave and start another
The management rupture grew bitter, with strongly-worded allegations of "neo-colonialism"
leveled at Kleinjans and two other foreign academics involved.
King Sihanouk was made aware of the fray, though those on both sides of it were anxious
to ensure his name was not tarnished.
The dispute is understood to have culminated in a letter from the King to Bunroeun
last weekend that required the academy to cease using his name.
The only comment from the Royal Palace's protocol department was: "You should
ask Thach Bunroeun."
Bunroeun, in a brief Mar 19 memorandum to staff, wrote: "Due to its financial
difficulties, the Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy declares...it ceases all functions and
activities, hence its existence."
Bunroeun could not be contacted after the academy was dissolved, but earlier declined
several Post requests for comment. "I have no comment, as always," he said
the day before he closed the academy.
Earlier, in several brief telephone conversations with the Post, he urged that nothing
be published about the dispute, which he said he hoped to resolve.
"This is an internal matter... As a Cambodian institution, please allow us to
settle this matter.
"I understand the freedom of the press but - I don't want to use these words
to you - there has to be press responsibilities too.
"For the sake the academy, for the sake of Cambodia - we are already so much
divided - and for the sake of the King, he is in ill health, as you know, and if
this is to be reported in the newspapers..."
Both Thach Bunroeun and academy vice-president Pen Dareth, the academy's two most
senior Khmer staff, are members of King Sihanouk's Cabinet. Another close adviser
to the King, Cambodian Ambassador to Japan Truong Mealy, was a key supporter of the
Opposing Bunroeun in the management contest were Dareth, Kleinjans (an American)
and fellow foreign academics Peter Gyallay-Pap and William Collins.
The group say they bear no ill-will toward Bunroeun but decided they could no longer
work with him. They are proposing to establish a new research institute "to
do all the things that we have talked about for two years," according to Kleinjans.
The collapse of the academy, founded in Aug 1993 as a "problem-oriented"
think tank, follows several major setbacks in its history.
For its first two years, the academy received about $200,000 in funding from the
Asia Foundation, which did not renew its grant when it expired last June.
Three senior Khmer staff resigned to continue their work elsewhere - including one
who, on the condition he left the academy, continued to receive Asia Foundation funding.
The final crisis began on Feb 27 when Bunroeun, as founder and co-vice president,
sacked Kleinjans. He appointed himself acting president - offering Kleinjans a position
as his adviser - and took control of administration and finance.
Bunroeun maintained the presidency change was an internal, technical matter, to allow
the academy to go ahead with negotiations to bring it under the auspices of the Ministry
Five senior staff - who along with Bunroeun used to hold regular management meetings
- responded with a Mar 5 memorandum questioning his authority to sack Kleinjans.
They wrote that Bunroeun's actions were "directly opposed to the high standards
of professional integrity and to the principles of a democratic process of consultation
which are expected in a national institution which has been blessed and honored by
the name of the King."
Refusing to accept Bunroeun's actions and passing a motion of no confidence in him,
the staff said they would be responsible for all administrative, finance and personnel
matters until a governing board was established for the academy.
The memorandum was signed by Kleinjans, Dareth, Gyallay-Pap, Collins and academy
financial comptroller Kim Sumarith. After discussions with Bunroeun, Sumarith later
withdrew his signature, writing that he did so "with regret."
Bunroeun rejected the senior staff's statements in a Mar 7 internal memorandum. The
same day, a motion signed by the academy's secretaries, cleaner, driver and guards
was distributed to all staff.
Typed in Khmer, the motion accused Kleinjans of seeking to remove the King's name
from the academy - a charge he denies - and stirring up trouble to divide the Khmer
It said that "a small group of intellectual-colonialists", with only one
Khmer under their control, had violated the rights of the Cambodian people and acted
against the Constitution.
"This is a neo-colonialism by which not only the Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy
will be destroyed, but the whole Khmer nation will also be definitely destroyed.
This is an act of inhumanity, nastiness and oppression which should be stopped immediately,"
the motion said, according to an English translation.
Pledging full support to Bunroeun and a vote of no confidence in the other four academics,
the motion said that only a Cambodian national should be the academy's president,
"in order to maintain independence, pride and solidarity of the Khmer nation".
Kleinjans questioned who had actually written the motion, saying that half of those
who had signed would not have been able to read it.
"Four of them can't even read Khmer but they're talking about neo-colonialism...I'm
sure that's what they discuss over lunch everyday."
Kleinjans, Dareth, Gyallay-Pap and Collins alleged that Bunroeun was behind the motion,
and said they found his actions "beyond the pale."
"This kind of unilateral action I could not accept, as a Cambodian," said
"Thach Bunroeun is not Cambodia. Thach Bunroeun is one Cambodian person. Accusing
us of acting against the Constitution, the nation, of wanting to destroy the academy...this
is too much."
The four academics agreed that a Khmer should head the academy, and say they were
working toward that.
"The only question is will it be a competent Cambodian?" said Kleinjans,
before the academy closed.
Kleinjans - a former president of the East-West Center in Hawaii who became academy
president in Nov 1994 at Bunroeun's request - acknowledged that a critical problem
had been that the academy had no governing board.
Policy decisions - including staff appointments and reappointments - were usually
made at regular meetings of senior staff but there were no formal lines of authority.
"The basic problem was between the founder and the president and who had authority,"
said Kleinjans. "When he fired me, I guess he answered that."
The academy's overheads were being primarily funded by private donations and grants.
Its biggest current project, research on ethnic minorities, was being funded by United
Nations agencies. That project is likely to be continued elsewhere by Dareth and
his colleagues, if the donors agree.