The seal of approval is inked and waiting, for Hun Sen (left), the title of Prime Minister; for Chea Sim (center), chief of the Senate; and for Prince Norodom Ranariddh (left), president of the National Assembly. Champagne celebrations, then, at the Council of Ministers, Nov 23, for the signing of the coalition deal.
For the first time in almost three and a half decades Cambodia is on the verge of
finding itself with a government that is recognized internationally, a political
environment without any significant competing ideolgies, an absence of any major
armed conflict internally among warring factions vying for power, the near-complete
dissolution of the Khmer Rouge as a threat to national security, and no regional
or international powers attempting to interfere in the nation's domestic affairs.
For the CPP's Prime Minister elect Hun Sen it is literally a dream come true.
But, is everyone else ready to celebrate?
Assuming the vote count reaches 82 this coming Monday in the National Assembly in
favor of a new cabinet with Hun Sen as the man in charge - an event which if it happens
will result in a host of smiles wider than the Mekong combined with a raucous round
of applause from at least 64 Members of Parliament - Cambodia's strongman will have
the power and, most importantly, legitimacy as sole prime minister that he has sought
for more than ten years.
Monday's vote will be the capstone of a deal announced on Nov 23 whereby the CPP
and Funcinpec agreed to form a coalition government, breaking an impasse since last
July's elections which had most observers frustrated and diplomats scurrying to bring
the parties to the negotiating table.
HAIL TO THE CHIEF
Hun Sen strides into the National Assembly, picking up a
handshake from his deputy and Minister of Interior, Sar Kheng.
With King Sihanouk's urging, and pressure from Japan and others, Prince Ranariddh
returned to Phnom Penh quite unexpectedly. Even Funcinpec insiders were caught unawares
by the Prince's about face.
He agreed to accept the position of president of the Assembly, something he'd previously
balked at, in return for full amnesty for exiled Princes Norodom Sirivuth and Norodom
Chakrapong, and Generals Nhek Bun Chhay, Srey Kosal and Sin Song.
Diplomats and political analysts are still puzzled why the Prince agreed to the deal
at all with widespread speculation as to his motives for doing so. Was this the best
the Prince could hope for? Did he sense the flagging international interest in the
Cambodian issue? Was it easier for him to cut a deal while Rainsy was away in Europe?
Nobody knows for sure.
Ministry portfolios would be split and, significantly, the Sam Raisny party would
be left out of the deal.
So what's wrong with this picture? For some observers the answer is "nothing".
Since the formation of the Funcinpec-led coalition government in 1993 numerous politicians,
Phnom Penh-based diplomats, expatriate businessmen and officials from among the foreign
donor community have argued - albiet privately - that a "two-headed" government
was unworkable, that Funcinpec lacked the human resources and network of party allies
to carry out administrative tasks effectively, and that since the CPP was never going
to give up power willingly they should run the show.
The proof was in the pudding, they say, and resulted in the outbreak of fighting
last July, 1997.
It was a hardball, pragmatic approach to politics that sidelined human rights issues,
accepted corruption and an inbred patron-client political structure as an unpleasant
but immediately unsolvable fact of life, and was one which placed greater emphasis
on "stability" as a recipe for growth and development rather than "democracy".
Moreover, it should be noted, the view was one which dismissed the will of the Cambodian
people as expressed in the $2.7 billion UNTAC-administered 1993 polls which were
widely considered the freest and fairest ever held in the country.
Returning opposition MP Sam Rainsy and his supporters were
intimidated, they say, by aggressive police behavior leading
up to the first session of the new government's National Assembly.
Those from the "purest" camp have been keen to point this out, arguing
as well that the CPP has never been committed to real reform, that giving power to
Hun Sen would only further entrench a network of cronies with no interest in the
rule of law or in taking any action to stem a culture of impunity which has seen
almost no arrests or convictions for the hundreds of politically-motivated killings
With the 1998 polls now behind us, and complaints about their validity seemingly
forgotten, the larger question is "Will the current coalition work?"
More to the point: "Can Hun Sen actually pull it off? Can he keep a fragile
coalition which includes personalities widely known to despise each other sufficiently
in place to encourage foreign investment, placate donors so that the aid trough remains
full and begin to tackle the host of ills that currently plague the Kingdom?"
The buzz word around town, for the moment, is "cautiously optimistic".
Foreign diplomats - those masters of understatement - are keeping their fingers crossed,
noting that the deal is still fragile, the coalition is comprised of personalities
who just last year were at war with each other and that power-sharing has never been
a Cambodian way of doing business.
Some Funcinpec MPs are trying to convince themselves and their constituents that,
seeing this is Hun Sen's government, he won't want to see it fail like the last coalition
did - so, therefore, he might be genuine in his offers of concessions.
But there are a plethora of unknowns and uncertainties.
The proposed Senate is an idea that, at present, has little substance. Nobody in
town has seen any documents which describe what the body will actually look like,
what powers it will have and how it will relate to the existing parliament.
If Chea Sim becomes Senate chairman does he lose his seat as an MP thus giving the
CPP one less vote in that august body? Will the King be responsible for all Senate
appointments? More crudely, as some observers wonder, will the senate just be a convenient
dumping ground for senior party loyalists who find themselves out in the cold without
a suitable title or position from which to wield influence? Even more to the point,
how is the cash-strapped government going to afford 60 new salaries at $1,200 per
month? Or, to the chagrin of Ranariddh, will the Senate be a body set up to emasculate
the National Assembly?
Of even greater concern is whether Hun Sen's enemies will give his new government
a chance. The September 24 attack on Hun Sen's motorcade in Siem Reap left the premier
visibly shaken. His fellow party stalwarts, following closely behind, did not miss
the point that it just as easily could have been their vehicle that might have been
hit by a B-40 rocket.
Are there disgruntled elements within the opposition who are willing to try again?
For the time being, Funcinpec and SRP party leaders are giving the green light.
Ranariddh, speaking Nov 25 on the day of his election as president of the National
Assembly, was bullish. "I feel confident and hope for a bright future of our
country Cambodia," the Prince said before receiving 105 votes in favor of him
becoming Assembly chief.
Sam Rainsy - who arrived back from exile Nov 26, to be immediately shadowed by armed
police, prompting him to again critize the government's attitude to personal liberties
- was a bit more guarded and looks set to be the parliamentary watchdog.
"From time to time we can challenge them," Rainsy said, referring to his
motion to nominate MP Son Chay for the position of Assembly First Vice President
in a failed effort to upstage the Heng Samrin candidacy.
But how long Rainsy will play ball is another unknown. At the very least, observers
expect that both he and his wife, MP Tiolong Samura, will initially add a bit of
argumentative life to the parliament - an institution not known for its raucous debates
- by their mastery of Assembly rules and procedures.
But how long will Rainsy tolerate the kind of bully-boy tactics used to disperse
his supporters upon his arrival back in country on Nov 24? Conversely, will the CPP
tolerate Rainsy's role as a vocal, determined opposition?
Looming above all these issues is the question of Cambodia's desperate economic situation.
To be blunt, some people are starving.
One would hope that when the Assembly met on Wednesday a few MPs caught the irony
that while hungry villagers were squatting in front of the Palace hoping for rice,
the street in front of parliament was Cambodia's largest parking lot for luxury Mercedes
Benz, BMWs and Landcruisers.
While there are some indications that investors will be interested in spending money
in a "stable" Cambodia, it is unlikely that they will pour in cash overnight.
Pre-l997 most investors were from the region - Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand -
countries now struggling with their own economic woes.
The private sector will be happy, though, with Monday's deal which gives the CPP
the key economic ministries - Finance, Commerce, Industry, Agriculture, Construction
and Planning - while Funcinpec will head up those more concerned with social issues
- Culture, Education, Health and Rural Development.
Privately, since 1993 investors have said that deals with the CPP were more likely
to stick. They didn't mind paying bribes; what they minded was paying money only
to see a deal fall apart.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon said that Cambodia will need $1 billion per year from
donors to get the country back on track.
The folks with the pursestrings are less sanguine.
"I think the government is under the illusion that they have done the hard work
and now something like a half billion will be forthcoming," said one donor chief
this week. "They may be rudely surprised with aid cutbacks."
Cambodians have had a tendency to blame others for their national ills: the French
colonialists, the Vietnamese expansionists, the American imperialists, the Thais,
the Russians and the Chinese have all played their part in bringing the country to
If Hun Sen becomes sole Prime Minister on Monday the road ahead will be his to chart
with most of the country's guns, purse-strings and destiny in his hands. He couldn't
want for more.
"This is the best and last opportunity we have," said one Cambodian political
The unknowns are frightening, the political participants quarrelsome and some say
the national ills are insurmountable - AIDS, deforestation, crime, corruption, poverty,
malnutrition - but one thing is clear: if this coalition lasts for the next two or
three or the full five years and progress is made in dealing with the problems at
hand, Hun Sen will get the full recognition and respect that has alluded him or so