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Beijing: Faxes and flights

Beijing: Faxes and flights

T HE political shuttle between Phnom Penh and Beijing may have slowed for awhile, but the fax line between the two capitals is running hot, and now Phnom Penh is abuzz with talk about what was discussed in China between the King, his two Prime Ministers and the National Assembly chairman.

In the past week, one Prime Minister has returned from visiting the King, saying very little; the other collapsed and has gone abroad for medical treatment, dismissing rumors that he would be replaced by his rival; and the Khmer Rouge have asked to be "in-lawed" and to be allowed to return to their office in Phnom Penh.

In the latest faxes from Beijing, where King Sihanouk has been since mid-May receiving medical treatment, His Majesty asked the government to consider Khmer Rouge nominal leader Khieu Samphan's request that the bill outlawing them be annulled and that they be allowed to once again reside in Phnom Penh. The KR were asked to leave the capital in June when round table peace talks broke down and shortly after that they were outlawed by the National Assembly.

The government's reply to Sihanouk's Sept 3 request, is a clear rejection of the "in-law" and return proposal, although couched in polite royal terms.

Several ministers and MPs dismissed the request, saying the KR used their chance for national reconciliation in June when they refused to accept a ceasefire.

"You cannot change the law because one criminal group wants to change," said Information Minister Ieng Mouly. "No sovereign state must be dictated by an outlawed group. Because of their status as outlaws they cannot come back [to Phnom Penh]."

"We will continue to do what we have been doing," said a more subdued Sok An, Minister in charge of the offices of the Council of Ministers. The reply to the King had to be signed by First PM Ranariddh, National Assembly President Chea Sim and Second PM Hun Sen, who is in France for medical tests. It was faxed to Paris for his signature and faxed back, then faxed to Beijing on Sept 6.

Prior to the flurry of faxes, everyone, it seemed, had been jetting off to the Chinese capital. Why, for example, was it necessary for CPP President Chea Sim to go to Beijing shortly after CPP Prime Minister Hun Sen returned? What proposals did Chea Sim carry to King Sihanouk which were contrary to Hun Sen's - and to Prince Ranariddh's?

One leading political figure who didn't make the Beijing trip was Finance Minister Sam Rainsy. He was prevented from going - his planned trip to Beijing for an economic conference was cancelled by the two PMs.

Rainsy supporters say this was to stop the maverick Funcinpec minister - whose father-in-law Nheak Tioulong is very close to Sihanouk - talking to the King.

Probably the most significant - but unreported - contention concerns a conversation Ranariddh says he had with the King during the premier's visit to Beijing.

Prince Ranariddh claimed the King told him that he would only retake political power on three conditions: that there be one party, no media freedom, and no human rights organizations.

There has been no confirmation from Beijing that His Majesty actually made the suggestions about his return to power.

Ranariddh made the claim about the three conditions before a small group of Funcinpec officials and a leading Western diplomat at Pochentong on Sept 2 after farewelling Hun Sen on his trip to Paris. His comments at the airport were later confirmed independently by three ministers.

"Forget it, it's not going to happen," said one minister. "I don't take this seriously. He will not come back," said another minister, when asked about the three conditions. Although the three prerequisites are not being considered seriously, the comments are interesting, if they indeed are true, as they would give an indication of the current thinking of King Sihanouk.

When he returned on Sept 1, Prince Ranariddh made no public comment about his Beijing trip, but subsequently both father and son have publicly denied rumors and a report that they discussed the possibility of replacing Cambodia's unique system of First and Second PMs with a more conventional Prime Minister and deputy system.

Whether or not this is true, it is unclear why both the King and the First PM saw it necessary to put out public statements on what appears to be a relative non-event - a matter of terminology. The much more important question is who will be number two in the future - not whether he is called "Second PM" or "deputy PM"?

Most analysts agree that Co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng is CPP's heir-apparent, and it's only a matter of time before he makes a bid to replace Hun Sen.

Apparently the time is not now, although Sar Kheng could take advantage of Hun Sen's weak health as the latter would find it difficult to muster the numbers and ward off a challenge.

Prince Ranariddh's return from Beijing was accompanied by a rumor - which CPP officials say was started, or at least fuelled by, a Funcinpec minister - that the tandem PM system would be scrapped, and that Hun Sen would be replaced and would leave the next day for an extended stay in Paris.

This, plus discussions at a closed-door CPP congress on Aug 29-30, led to speculation that Sar Kheng would replace Hun Sen. But in a late-night phone conversation the night before leaving for Paris, Hun Sen confirmed that he would remain as a co-premier. "There are no changes in CPP. No changes. This information is not right," the PM said.

Prince Ranariddh had been due to return from Beijing on Sept 2, but came back one day early to allow Hun Sen to leave for Paris where his is now having medical tests. The Second PM was admitted to Calmette Hospital on Aug 27 after collapsing at his home with hypertension (high blood pressure), and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels), according to aides. He left on a commercial flight six days later, accompanied by the Cambodian Ambassador to France, former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong who had been in Phnom Penh on a private visit.

Hun Sen had cancelled several appointments in the previous two weeks and had rarely been seen in public since the July 2 coup attempt, which the government says was intended to eliminate the two co-leaders.

As if to underscore concerns over his personal security, Hun Sen arrived at CPP's Chamkarmon headquarters for the Central Committee (CC) meeting on Aug 29 surrounded by heavily armed, ready-to-go soldiers.

The same CC meeting formalized the dismissal of the alleged leaders of the coup attempt, Prince Norodom Chakrapong, former Interior Minister Sin Song and Interior Secretary of State Sin Sen.

Some people in the CPP believe Hun Sen has served his time and ought to step aside for the new-look Sar Kheng who is being groomed for the job. The two men are similar in many ways, but Sar Kheng lacks Hun Sen's charisma and internationalism - although his minders are working on the latter.

At only 43, Hun Sen has already been PM for a decade of traumatic change.

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