Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CPP starts the new year playing hardball

CPP starts the new year playing hardball

CPP starts the new year playing hardball

HUN SEN and the CPP kicked off the election year with a political offensive reinforcing

the Second Prime Minister's moniker as Cambodia's "strongman" as he snubbed

ASEAN, stuck to strong government conditions for a ceasefire and bullied King Norodom

Sihanouk into rescinding plans to unilaterally pardon Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The CPP's hardening of its political line, including the re-emergence of demonstration

threats by pro-CPP student groups, caused cries of foul play from the Union of Cambodian

Democrats (UCD), who postponed plans for a mass return of self-exiles and threatened

to boycott the 1998 election.

Hun Sen's latest political target is the ASEAN "troika", an informal grouping

of the Thai, Indonesian and Philippine foreign ministries charged with providing

a diplomatic bridge between the Phnom Penh government and the UCD.

In a Jan 12 speech at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, Hun Sen directly

criticized ASEAN countries' administrations.

"In Brunei, power rests with the monarchy. In Indonesia some newspapers that

criticize the government were closed. And in Thailand when they have an election,

it is corrupt," Hun Sen said. "Other things, like economics, they can teach

us, but on the subject of democracy and human rights, they must not teach us."

Hun Sen added that he had heard ASEAN diplomats planned to visit Cambodia for another

diplomatic initiative, but said that it would be a waste of time. "If they come,

I will not have time to talk with them," he said.

A Phnom Penh-based diplomat from a "troika" country said his embassy was

baffled by the public thrashing, adding he had no knowledge of a planned ASEAN visit.

"We don't know the reason for this criticism. We are not aware of any program

for a visit, but Hun Sen has said all these things before," the diplomat said

in reference to Hun Sen's strong statements last year after Cambodia's entry into

ASEAN was denied.

When asked what provoked the outburst, Hun Sen's cabinet said ASEAN wished to discuss

the return of the deposed Prince Rana-riddh, a touchy subject for the Second Prime

Minister.

"The Royal Government considers this case a judicial one, but other countries

see it as a political one - that is the difference of opinion," adviser Prak

Sokhonn said. "It's a little surprising for it to come out so publicly, but

you know [Hun Sen]. He says what he feels in his heart."

Prince Ranariddh also appears to be the subject of bruised egos in the Royal Palace

after King Sihanouk abruptly left the capital Jan 5 for Beijing.

After agreeing to a Sam Rainsy-brokered deal that would allow the deposed first premier

to receive an unsolicited Royal pardon, the King backed down in a terse statement

released hours before he left Cambodia.

"Firstly, I will not do anything that is not completely in accordance with our

laws and our Constitution," the monarch wrote in a French-language version of

the statement. "Secondly, it is not and will not be a question of me granting

an amnesty to Samdech Norodom Ranariddh without beforehand receiving a good and proper

plea (written request)."

Palace staff said they were caught off-guard when the King announced on the morning

of Jan 5 that he would leave on a regularly-scheduled SilkAir flight that afternoon.

One of the foreign diplomats who rushed to Pochentong airport to pay respects to

the departing Royal couple said Queen Monineath was visibly upset as she boarded

the plane.

The cabinets of the Second Prime Minister and the King refused to comment on why

the King left, but diplomats said Sihanouk became furious after the co-premiers asked

him to sign a document promising he would "not make any unilateral decisions"

regarding Prince Ranariddh.

After the departure announcement, a member of Hun Sen's cabinet told a foreign journalist

that efforts were underway to arrange a last-minute meeting with the King. The meeting

did not occur and Hun Sen was notably absent at the airport.

Prak Sokhonn, however, denied any knowledge of attempts to arrange a meeting and

claimed "the fact that the King left so quickly is not related to their relationship."

Hun Sen was not present at the King's departure because he was "very busy",

the adviser said.

The political climate began to cool on Dec 27 when Hun Sen announced he was against

a unilateral pardon for Ranariddh and demanded the Prince acknowledge wrongdoing

before receiving one.

In the ensuing days, media loyal to the CPP began criticizing the King over the planned

pardon. Tensions increased as threats of demonstrations in front of the Royal Palace

were broadcast over state-run media. An Interior Ministry source later confirmed

there was movement in the CPP to mobilize its student groups for demonstrations.

One of the CPP's political allies, Khmer Citizen Party president Nguon Soeur, warned

in an open letter read on television that there could be bloodshed if the King paved

the way for the return of Ranariddh.

"According to my public opinion polls...if Prince Ranariddh is set free without

his requesting it, our country would have no rule of law. The consequence could be

that blood will be spilt when the Prince comes back and the monarchy might be eliminated,"

Soeur wrote.

"You were deposed before, now you are back on the throne," he wrote to

the King. "I don't want to see you lose the throne again."

Adding to the intrigue surrounding the King's departure was the earlier suggestion

- or perhaps threat - that the King was considering permanent self-exile.

The King's monthly bulletin printed a letter from controversial columnist pen-named

Ruom Ritt - widely believed to be His Majesty himself - advising the constitutional

monarch to go into exile.

"I believe that the moment has come for you, Sire, to leave the soil that burns

more and more under your feet," Ruom Ritt wrote. "In the world and in the

universal history, there are great patriots who, at one time or another in their

lives, are obliged to enter into exile. By doing so they can serve effectively, although

indirectly, the just cause of their countries and of their respective peoples."

Citing attacks in the press on the King, Ruom Ritt wrote: "[They] drag you through

the mud, calumny you, humiliate you, insult you, systematically rejecting all your

proposals."

Several days before the King's departure, Prince Ranariddh wrote his father from

France and suggested his prospects for participating in elections lie in the monarch's

hands.

"I only dare to hope that, thanks to your great benevolence, I can participate

in the next election as a free man and that 'justice will finally be granted to me

by our great sovereign people'," the prince wrote Dec 31.

The Prince canceled a planned Jan 15 return after the King left, and his allies in

self-exile responded to the CPP's political pressure by threatening to boycott elections.

The four-party Union of Cambodian Democrats said in a Jan 6 statement issued from

Bangkok that it reserved "the opportunity...to withdraw wholesale from the electoral

process if the next elections are likely to prove to be only a sham intended to legitimize

the illegal and unpopular regime currently in Phnom Penh, as seems to unfortunately

be the tendency."

Hun Sen fired back at the UCD the next day, saying elections would be held with or

without them. "There are 10 million people [in Cambodia]," he told reporters

at a Jan 7 Liberation Day celebration. "The election cannot depend on one person,

so the election will be held even if there is no participation by those people."

A planned Jan 14 return of 58 self-exiled political figures - mostly low- and mid-level

Funcinpec officials and their families - was then canceled by the UCD. But Khmer

Nation Party leader Sam Rainsy announced his planned return to Phnom Penh on Jan

15.

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