Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Democracy from the barrel of a gun

Democracy from the barrel of a gun

Democracy from the barrel of a gun

T WO days of fighting in Phnom Penh has unraveled Cambodia's five-year democratic

experiment, with Funcinpec's political and military power shattered and Hun Sen's

Cambodian People's Party seizing total control of the government.

The Second Prime Minister's move to secure absolute power through the barrel of a

gun - while still maintaining the frills of democracy - sets him on a path which

will be difficult for him to retreat from, diplomats and other analysts say.

Despite going to great lengths to avoid international repercussions for his military

gambit, Hun Sen may have miscalculated: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

responded by overturning its decision to admit Cambodia this year; aid from key donors

such as Japan and the United States is under threat; and several countries are evacuating

thousands of their nationals, a move which diplomats acknowledge is partly intended

to send a strong signal of disapproval.

Hun Sen - who has threatened to arrest First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh

if he returns from abroad - is meanwhile moving to orchestrate the appointment of

a new Funcinpec prime minister, widely expected to be little more than his puppet.

For those who oppose Hun Sen, the situation appears a lose-lose one: if Funcinpec

submits to a new coalition government with him, it may clear the way for international

community to grant him legitimacy; if Funcinpec, King Norodom Sihanouk and a significant

portion of the world refuse to recognize Hun Sen, he will almost certainly retain

power by force.

"If the King rejects it, if they fail to get a Funcinpec prime minister, he

will have to move on to dictatorship," one CPP source said. "Every country

would have to refuse to recognize it, but he sees that he has no other choice."

"Hun Sen could be driven into a corner," said one senior Western diplomat.

"We are looking for...something that would be in the middle. The problem is

that Hun Sen may now not be able to present himself as a moderate."

It remains unclear whether any middle ground - if Hun Sen can be pressured to compromise

by foreign donors, the King and possibly elements of his own party - can be found.

The long-expected showdown between CPP and Funcinpec, ignited by a CPP campaign to

disarm forces loyal to its government coalition partner last weekend, left Ranariddh's

Funcinpec party in tatters and with little bargaining power.

Funcinpec's military might in the capital was wiped out, with key commanders including

General Nhek Bun Chhay forced to flee; some were summarily executed in a blunt message

not wasted on their party colleagues.

Funcinpec's political collapse followed in double-quick time: in disarray, party

officials closeted themselves in rooms at the Cambodiana Hotel, some leaving the

country on the first flights out, while others remain in hiding.

Funcinpec officials and MPs were effectively left with two choices: give up their

positions and livelihoods or agree to Hun Sen's demands. While many Funcinpec officials

chose to go abroad, senior party chiefs including several ministers are negotiating

with Hun Sen.

In the longer term, say analysts, Hun Sen's aim is to go ahead with national elections,

in a bid to gain some kind of national and international stamp of approval. With

all opposition subdued or exiled abroad, and the CPP in control of the election arrangements,

observers suggest that a CPP victory is assured.

Last weekend's events, according to several diplomats and other political observers,

have taken Cambodia back to before the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and 1993 United Nations-sponsored


The unique difference is Hun Sen's desire to maintain a veneer of democratic pluralism

- a clear attempt not to see foreign donors and investors cut Cambodia's purse strings

- rather than return to blatant one-party rule.

While diplomats debate whether to use the C word - coup d'état - Hun Sen has

made considerable efforts to avoid being labeled a dictator: he steadfastly argues

that the CPP military action was a lawful bid to disarm illegal Khmer Rouge and Funcinpec

troops; that he will remain as Second Prime Minister, not taking the No.1 spot; and

that the elections will be held.

As he himself put it, in a televised speech as his forces secured victory in Phnom

Penh last Sunday night, "If Hun Sen had staged a coup, the name Funcinpec would

not exist and there would be no other parties."

"It seems fairly clear that Hun Sen wants to see an emaciated Funcinpec with

which he will readily embrace democratic values," said one diplomatic source.

"But we all know that's not the reality. It makes a farce out of UNTAC [the

UN elections]."

"The difference between now and pre-Peace Accords is that before there was a

one-party state; now there is a ruling party with satellites," added one human

rights worker. "They are nominally independent but they are non-opposition parties.

"It's a basic authoritarian regime with constitutional and democratic trappings.

Is it here yet? That's what it is in the process of becoming."

But while Hun Sen has won the battle, the war is not yet over. Most critical for

him, say observers, is to contain international condemnation of him and force the

National Assembly to ratify a new Funcinpec prime minister.

From the moment the bullets began to fly, CPP swung into action with diplomatic damage

control: Hun Sen delivered a lengthy explanation that the military action was necessary

to "defend social order, people's safety and national security"; senior

CPP officials called almost daily briefings for the diplomatic corps; the party even

produced a 27-page "White Paper" justifying its military action in the

face of "Prince Ranariddh's strategy of provocation."

Hun Sen has urged the international community to stay out of Cambodia's "internal"

affairs and laid down the gauntlet, telling countries to choose between "Ranariddh

and the Khmer Rouge" or "CPP, Funcinpec, BLDP and Molinaka working together

in a legal government".

First and foremost, say analysts, Hun Sen has to produce a working multi-party government.

He has moved to reopen the deadlocked National Assembly, in order to seek the two-thirds

majority approval required by the Constitution for Ranariddh's ouster and replacement.

While Funcinpec chiefs still in Cambodia say they have made no decisions, key players

are negotiating with Hun Sen. Funcinpec Secretary-General Loy Sim Chheang, the acting

president of the National Assembly - and Hun Sen's preferred choice as Ranariddh's

replacement - has publicly supported CPP's call for the National Assembly to meet.

Funcinpec Minister of Interior You Hockry, Minister of Defense Tea Chamrath and Minister

of Industry Pou Sothirak, among other senior party officials, are also negotiating

with the Second Prime Minister.

CPP and Funcinpec officials say Hun Sen wants Loy Sim Chheang, a technocrat with

no military history, as a figurehead prime minister.

The other likely contender is Toan Chay, the Funcinpec governor of Siem Reap who

joined the anti-Ranariddh breakaway move in April.

Toan Chay - who was in the United States during the weekend fighting - has said that

he is willing to replace Ranariddh as Funcinpec president, but not prime minister,

sources say.

While Hun Sen has previously supported Toan Chay's Funcinpec breakaway, observers

suggest he would be his second choice for the prime ministerial job. Chay, with a

reputation for no-nonsense straight-talking, is unlikely to be as pliable as Loy

Sim Chheang; there are also suspicions that Chay's split from Ranariddh was implicitly

backed by the King, and that Chay remains his own man.

For those reasons, some in Funcinpec may support Chay now. King Sihanouk's position,

meanwhile, remained unclear at Post press time. Except for an unsuccessful appeal

July 6 for both Prime Ministers to visit him in Beijing for discussions, the King

has remained uncharacteristically quiet on Hun Sen's take-over.

While many believe the King's political power is virtually nil, he retains popularity

and, in theory at least, the Constitutional ability to approve or deny changes to

the government. The extent of his international influence may have waned in recent

years, but some countries may support him if he refuses to recognize a new government.

Both Funcinpec and CPP have their eyes on the King, expecting him to launch attempts

to play a mediating role between Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Some in Funcinpec are bitter

that the King hasn't already thrown full support behind his son Ranariddh.

"We don't know what the position of the King is. He must return to Cambodia

and play some role in solving the Cambodia problem," said one party official.

"He must take some responsibility for the 1993 result, for asking Ranariddh

to share power with Hun Sen."

To head off maneuvering by the King and Ranariddh, Hun Sen will likely consider it

vital to complete the fait accompli as soon as possible, observers say.

Ranariddh, in France at the time the fighting erupted, is doing the rounds of foreign

capitals in a bid to enlist support for his denunciation of Hun Sen's action as a

coup d'état.

"If the appointment of a first prime minister is delayed, how can countries

refuse to give audiences to Ranariddh? [Hun Sen's] legitimacy will be gone,"

said one political observer.

Hun Sen would be unable to achieve a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly

if Funcinpec MPs voted en masse against Ranariddh's replacement, or boycotted parliament.

Whether enough MPs would have the courage to do that - particularly after Funcinpec

Secretary of State for Interior Ho Sok was executed after his capture by CPP forces

this week - is a moot point.

"In Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, I don't think any place is safe. They can trace

you, they can arrest you, anyone can be shot," said Funcinpec MP Ahmad Yahya

July 9.

"If the parliament is scared, including myself, I have to raise my hand, if

I want to keep my job.

"Now Mr Hun Sen teaches us English: he holds up a piece of paper and says 'This

is white paper'. The paper is black. But we have to repeat it, 'This is white paper'."

Yahya made his choice July 10, departing with several other MPs on a flight out of

Cambodia, leaving others in his party yet to decide whether to do the same, or choose

to recite Hun Sen's lines.


  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to

  • Thai border crossings eased

    The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand said in an announcement on Wednesday that Thailand’s government has allowed certain passengers from several countries to enter its borders. The visitors must go back to their country immediately after their duties in Thailand are fulfilled, the embassy said.

  • Gov’t says tourism recovers slightly despite pandemic

    The Ministry of Tourism and the Phnom Penh municipal administration have recognised 33 tourism businesses in the capital which have consistently implemented safety measures for tourists and adhered to the code of conduct issued by the ministry. Recently, the ministry announced that tourism businesses had to

  • Mull ASEAN border opening, PM urges

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has requested that ASEAN launch a scenario for gradually reopening cross-border travel and trade between countries in the region. He said ASEAN has had more success combating Covid-19 compared to other regions. The prime minister’s request was made at the

  • Ministry reports 11 new Covid-19 cases, reiterates vigilance

    Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng has urged people to continue practising virus prevention techniques after 11 people tested positive for Covid-19 within two days after arriving in the Kingdom. Speaking on Sunday, Bun Heng stressed the importance of washing hands, wearing masks or scarves when

  • Koh Rong land ‘belongs to firm’

    Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration spokesperson Kheang Phearum told The Post on Sunday that the 35ha being bulldozed by Royal Group Co Ltd in Koh Rong belongs to it after it was leased to it for 99 years by the government in 2008. Phearum said the land does

  • Nine on Indonesia flight Covid-19 positive

    The Ministry of Health on Saturday confirmed nine more imported cases of Covid-19. The nine ‒ eight Cambodians and one Indonesian, aged 22 to 26 ‒ arrived in Cambodia on Thursday via a direct flight from Indonesia and are receiving treatment at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hostipal in Phnom Penh.

  • Kingdom’s financial sector healthy

    Cambodia's financial sector remains on a sustainable growth path despite the Covid-19 pandemic squeezing crucial industries, National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) governor Chea Chanto said. Tourism, garments and footwear have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 impact, he said, whereas the financial and agriculture sectors

  • Vietnam told to remove border tents

    Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophoan has ordered local authorities to prohibit the construction of buildings in areas bordering Cambodia and to report any irregularities immediately. Recently, Vietnamese officials removed another seven tents from the border area with Cambodia. His remarks were made on Wednesday afternoon