Dr Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy,
assesses the political in-fighting which has brought the government and parliament
to their knees.
CAMBODIA'S government and parliamentary machinery has now ground to a halt. The tenuous
coalition has finally collapsed. The two coalition partners, Funcinpec and the Cambodian
People's Party (CPP), have been ruling the country their own separate ways, with
the CPP controlling virtually all the administrative apparatus and machinery, the
bulk of the security forces, and the major part of the armed forces.
Now all non-CPP parties are very weak. The Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP)
is split in the middle, with one faction of four MPs joining the CPP-Alliance and
the other joining the Funcinpec-led National United Front. Molinaka, with a single
MP, has joined the Alliance.
Funcinpec, winner at the 1993 elections, expelled a prominent member, Sam Rainsy,
in 1994, and lost prominent member Prince Norodom Sirivudh in 1995. It has failed
to have power commensurate with the democratic mandate, conferred on it by the elections.
Its attempts to have a share of power at the district level have so far failed. It
has failed to make its influence felt in the government and across the country. Its
latest bid to remove BLDP Information Minister Ieng Mouly from the government also
failed, and Sirivudh's return from exile has been prevented. Funcinpec is not a very
well organized, cohesive, solid and disciplined party. Now some of its leading members
led by Ung Phan, a defector from the CPP, and General Toan Chay and General Doung
Khem, two army generals from its anti-Vietnamese resistance days, have challenged
the party leadership of Prince Norodom Ranariddh. These dissidents and at least four
out of its 58 MPs have broken away and supported its rival, the CPP.
Ranariddh, the Funcinpec Prime Minister, has proved a lesser leader than his counterpart
in the coalition, CPP Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen. The latter has political ambition
and drive. He has been working diligently to forge his way to become the de facto
paramount leader of the country, which he has achieved now. The CPP has maintained
its communist characteristics. It is very well organized from the national down to
the grassroots level, with a well established chain-of-command. It is very cohesive
and united. Its officials and members are subjected to tight discipline, and they
are not so open in their conversations with outsiders. Supported by some leading
businessmen in the country, the party is said to be well endowed with financial resources
and known to be generous to those who support it. Now with support of its allies,
the CPP with its own 51 MPs can muster a strength of 60 out of 120 MPs in the National
Assembly. It has an upper hand while Prince Norodom Sirivudh, a Funcinpec MP, is
still in exile.
Apart from a psychological impact, this ascendance to parity with the non-CPP parties
combined in the National Assembly does not mean much. The CPP will not be able to
use its newly gained strength to legitimize its policies through the National Assembly
or implement them through governmental machinery, and in the end to lawfully run
the country alone. The quorum required to convene the National Assembly is seven-tenths
of the 120 MPs, that is 84 MPs. The approval of at least two thirds of the 120 MPs,
that is 80 MPs, is required for the nomination and dismissal of the government or
any of its members. Furthermore, to be lawful, major government decisions from national
down to the provincial levels must be made by both sides.
With the current split of numbers in the National Assembly, it is not possible for
any party to unseat any member of the government including the Prime Minister, or
form a new government, if the MPs from the other party remain united. They could
vote down such a proposal, or boycott sessions of parliament.
Funcinpec cannot be sure it can expel its breakaway MPs and replace them with loyal
ones. A precedent was set when Funcinpec MP Sam Rainsy was expelled from the party
and later from the National Assembly in 1995. But it is not clear whether this precedent
has become a rule of the National Assembly - that MPs expelled from their party automatically
lose their seats in the assembly. Rainsy's expulsion had the support of the CPP,
but no formal rule was set on whether his expulsion should be approved by a majority
of the 120 MPs. If expulsions should require a vote of MPs, it is unclear whether
a simple majority or a two-thirds majority is necessary to approve them.
The parliamentary session which should have resumed on 21 April has now ground to
a halt following the split between the two main parties. The chance of it being resumed
before these parties reach any compromise is nil.
As for the Council of Ministers, it has been virtually closed for quite some time.
The Prime Ministers and Ministers have been making decisions and statements separately,
more in their capacity as party leaders than government leaders. Cabinet decisions
have become increasingly rare. Many a time, Ministers' decisions and statements have
reflected those of their party, not of the cabinet. The two top leaders have been
communicating with each other virtually entirely through television and radio speeches.
This communication consists almost exclusively of an exchange of criticisms, charges
and counter-charges, in order to score points.
The Prime Ministers have not seen eye-to-eye for some time, though they have occasionally
managed to put on theatrical shows of unity to assuage the concerns of international
donors. Their close lieutenants adopt their postures, but some have managed to keep
their counterparts in the other camp at arm's length. A substantial number of top
army officers seem to be able to exercise restraint and have not joined the disputes.
The two co-Ministers of Defense seem to have cordial relationships and have aptly
managed to contain and resolve disputes involving the armed forces. They managed
to defuse tension at Samlot near Pailin in Dec 1996 almost immediately after an incident
in which the First Prime Minister was denied a visit there. They also managed to
end armed conflicts in Battambang early this year.
The two co-Ministers of Interior similarly do not seem to have any conflict. CPP
Deputy Prime Minister and co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has spoken forcefully
above party politics. A moderate, he is in a position to restrain extremist tendencies.
National Assembly President Chea Sim (CPP) seems to be a restraining force as well.
However, both are leaders of the same party. While co-Premier and CPP Vice-President
Hun Sen is in the lead and is forging ahead, these two CPP leaders have contributed
to consolidate their party their own way. They have sought to contain any damage
to the party, as at times Hun Sen's forcefulness and outbursts have produced suspicions
that the CPP is showing its old colors as an oppressive communist party or that Hun
Sen is developing his own cult of personality.
The CPP - with its control over much of the administrative, security and military
apparatus inherited from its past rule - is stronger than ever before. With this
control, it is in a position to de facto run the country, with or without the other
coalition partners. There seems to be nothing much which can stop its forward march
until the 1998 elections, if the elections can be held. But the CPP has yet to win
those elections comfortably, to be able to form a government of its own or with its
allies. At this juncture, no one can be sure of CPP's victory if those elections
are free and fair, and no one can be sure either whether, if the present split between
the major parties persists, those elections can be free and fair.
The present government and parliament will effectively lose their remaining legitimacy
if the current impasse persists for any length of time. This legitimacy will be completely
lost when their current term expires in late 1998 if there is no justification for
the King to extend, or if the King refuses to extend, this term for another year.
In the meantime there are fears that continuous confrontation between Funcinpec and
the CPP, and particularly the Prime Ministers, might lead to bloodshed and a civil
The possibility is there because the antagonistic sides can miscalculate or simply
be irrational. But barring miscalculation or irrationality, the prospects of war
are not high. Virtually all the top military commanders, party leaders and officials
and government leaders and officials have too comfortable positions and are too well-off
to risk a war whose outcome no one can be sure of. War is costly. There seems to
be no one in Cambodia rich enough to be able to fund a war that could last long.
The prospects of a quick coup to win power also seem low when no one is capable of
knowing and controlling all elements and factors. Military commanders cannot be sure
their men would execute all their orders when their actual number may not match the
official figure, and when these men are underpaid and not so disciplined. Furthermore,
troops now seem tired of war. The failure to militarily defeat the dwindling Khmer
Rouge is a telling example.
No one can be sure that a coup to eliminate all leaders of a rival side would ensure
a lasting victory, when the rank-and-file of that side may not accept this outcome
and may mount resistance. The examples of Lon Nol's coup in 1970 and of Vietnam's
blitzkrieg in 1978 and the ensuing prolonged wars cannot be forgotten. Many of the
elements of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) used to fight in different camps
not so long ago. There are civilians with different types of weapons around. There
are the poor around the country, urban poor and squatters who feel injustices. These
elements may take sides and join the fight, to make the most out of the situation.
The Khmer Rouge are still there and would not stand by. They would fish in the troubled
The rich would have a lot to lose. Business enterprises could not operate normally.
Owners of properties could lose them to damage or occupation. Property values would
fall. Benefits that a victory could bring are not likely to be high enough to compensate
for the depletion of natural and other resources, and the possible loss of foreign
At the moment, the antagonistic sides have armed forces loyal to them in the RCAF.
The forces loyal to Funcinpec are not as strong as those loyal to CPP, but with these
forces, Funcinpec is like a hedgehog, which the CPP would find difficult to swallow.
For its part, the CPP has been able to gain a superior position after its 1993 electoral
defeat without resorting to the armed forces. It would be a very bad strategy for
it to now use military forces to win a Pyrrhic victory, and face internal and external
Furthermore, an important external factor needs to be brought into the picture. After
the end of the Cold War, big powers are not interested in providing assistance to
Cambodian warring factions any more. They are bound by the Paris Agreements of 1991
and, if they honor their international obligations, would exercise their influence
to restrain Cambodians from making war. They would also be in a position to restrain
Cambodia's neighbors from interfering and assisting Cambodians. These neighbors,
also bound by the same international obligations, are tied up more with their development.
They would not have the same support from big powers as in the past for their intervention
One must fear, though, the wishes of Asian countries to see Cambodia abandon pluralistic
liberal democracy with respect to human rights and the rule of law as enshrined in
the Paris Agreements and the Constitution. Cambodia has undergone a silent democratic
revolution and this, like many other revolutions, is contagious and can spread to
Asian countries still under authoritarian-ism or one-party rule. Some of these countries
may accept a Burmese SLORC-type rule or even a Pol Pot rule in Cambodia. After all
this rule is very much part of Asian values.