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.


  • Joy as Koh Ker Temple registered by UNESCO

    Cambodia's Koh Ker Temple archaeological site has been officially added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on September 17. The ancient temple, also known as Lingapura or Chok Gargyar, is located in

  • Ream base allegations must end, urges official

    A senior government official urges an end to the allegations and suspicions surrounding the development of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, now that Prime Minister Hun Manet has addressed the issue on the floor of the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78). Jean-Francois Tain, a geopolitical

  • Cambodia set to celebrate Koh Ker UNESCO listing

    To celebrate the inscription of the Koh Ker archaeological site on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Ministry of Cults and Religion has appealed to pagodas and places of worship to celebrate the achievement by ringing bells, shaking rattles and banging gongs on September 20. Venerable

  • CP denied registration documents by ministry

    The Ministry of Interior will not reissue registration documents to the Candlelight Party (CP). Following a September 21 meeting between ministry secretary of state Bun Honn and CP representatives, the ministry cited the fact that there is no relevant law which would authorise it to do

  • Cambodian diaspora laud Manet’s UN Assembly visit

    Members of the Cambodian diaspora are rallying in support of Prime Minister Hun Manet’s forthcoming visit to the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78) in the US’ New York City this week. Their move is an apparent response to a recent call by self-exiled former

  • After three deferrals, Capital Gains Tax to take effect Jan 1, 2024

    The General Department of Taxation (GDT) will implement the Capital Gains Tax starting January 1, 2024 to after being deferred three times as industrial players warn that the implementation might have some negative impact on the property market growth, which is down due to the economic downturn.