PRINCE Norodom Ranariddh's conviction has been heralded by Cambodia's international
'Friends' as the first step in bringing him back for elections. It is one at odds
with many observers in Phnom Penh however.
One of the four pillars under Japan's plan to get Ranariddh back has at least been
established: Ranariddh is tried and found guilty. The same will probably happen at
his next trial, then his father King Sihanouk is expected to pardon him. The Prince,
theoretically, then returns to campaign.
The plan aims to "get rid of any obstacles keeping Ranariddh and other returning
politicians from participating in the election", according to Kazuhiro Nakai,
first secretary at the Japanese Embassy. "What we would like to see is [both]
trials, verdicts and a Royal amnesty as soon as possible."
Perhaps as an incentive, Japan approved a $3 million election aid grant - consisting
of more than 11,000 aluminum ballot boxes - on the eve of Ranariddh's trial.
According to the plan, which also includes a ceasefire and a separation of Ranariddh's
forces from the Khmer Rouge, ultimately it will be up to the Prince to return and
participate in the polls, Nakai said.
But many, including the King himself, are skeptical about whether the trials and
a pardon will see his return, or instead lead to more obstacles being placed in his
"There are three things I find strange [about the trial]. The acceptance that
there should be a trial at all, the complete abandonment of due process as he was
presumed guilty, and that it forwarded progress toward elections," said one
diplomatic source, who said that all three points are extremely questionable.
The source suggested that Hun Sen is now getting the convictions he wants while receiving
little flak from an international community anxious to see the process at an end.
Hun Sen has said he would not stand in the way if a Royal asks for Ranariddh's pardon,
but only last December he spurned a similar offer, unleashing instead a barrage of
CPP-affiliated media attacks on Sihanouk over plans to clear his son's name.
While the King has promised to pardon his son if a close family member asks him to,
he recently wrote that he is almost certain that Hun Sen will not let Ranariddh run
in elections, and he expects to be dethroned if a pardon is granted.
"I don't fear, I expect [it]," the King wrote in his monthly bulletin.
The Prince's political ally, Sam Rainsy, has predicted that the political parties
law, which forbids registered parties from forming their own armies or controlling
autonomous zones, will be used against Funcinpec to keep the party out of the election.
"Hun Sen will accuse Ranariddh of having a partisan army along the border,"
Rainsy said. "But Ranariddh can turn around and say that these forces are a
portion of the Royal Cambodian army. The evidence for him is the empty UN seat that
clearly shows there is a split in the government."
Other political observers said it would be impossible to verifiy whether Ranariddh
has indeed politically and militarily seperated from the Khmer Rouge.
The CPP may be counting on the opinions many diplomats hold that there is no workable
alternative to Hun Sen for the premiership, at least not one who would guarantee
immediate peace and stability.
The leadership alternatives are inadequate, according to one source who said Funcinpec
has been emasculated, and Sam Rainsy's political structure is "nothing".
The CPP believes this and is banking on the 'Friends' to again be unable to make
a united stand against what many claim are strong-arm tactics.
Hun Sen may be considered by some to be the best candidate for short-term stability,
but holding elections that could be seen as a sham "would set a bad precedent"
in the world community, Rainsy warned.
An increasingly relevant question - as the tally of political killings continues
to mount - is whether it would be safe for those now in exile to return.
After the March 6 Friends meeting in Manila - attended by the European Union, Japan,
the United States, ASEAN and Russia - a message was delivered to the Cambodian government
hinting at the anger election donors had over the killing of Funcinpec Brigadier-General
The international community said it would not tolerate many more such incidents.
The statement released after the meeting said: "In order to create conditions
for free, fair and credible elections, steps were urgently required to ensure a climate
free of human rights abuses and political intimidation", according to AFP.
The position of the Japanese, who maintain that the overall political climate will
be the most important consideration in Tokyo's impending decision on a final $7.2
million election assistance package, is one of cautious concern.
A broader view of politically-related violence - not the return of Prince Ranariddh
- is being scrutinized the most by the Japanese, according to Nakai, but he conceded
that the Cambodian government was increasingly being seen as paying lip service to
Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto personally asked Hun Sen last July for
a thorough investigation into the killings that occurred during last year's fighting.
Hun Sen gave assurances that would happen, Nakai said, but as yet nothing had been
One diplomat said contingency plans had already been drawn up by some election donors
in case Ranariddh had a legitimate reason to fear for his safety upon return.
Although the official line is that the Prince "cannot hold elections hostage"
by declining to participate, these contingency plans - presumably an election pull-out
- could be invoked should more political killings occur.
"If we have legal reasons not to take part in the elections, then we will not
take part," Sam Rainsy said of himself and Prince Ranariddh. "Then many
donors must ask themselves if they should finance a questionable institution."