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Comment: CPP: winning battles but not yet the war

Comment: CPP: winning battles but not yet the war

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

in Cambodia.

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.


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