U NABLE to convince Second Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow peace talks under his mediation,
King Norodom Sihanouk left for China Oct 25, giving no sign of when he would return.
In a meeting in Siem Reap town two days earlier, Hun Sen refused the King's final
stab at mediation between the government and forces loyal to his son, deposed First
Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The King, according to opposition MP Son Chhay, had earlier proposed informal talks
between the government and self-exiled supporters of Ranarridh.
Speaking after his meeting with the King, Hun Sen said the proposed meeting - which
Sihanouk had dubbed SIM, or Siem Reap Informal Meeting - was not necessary.
"It is enough for members of parliament, including ministers... to return. I
told the monarch there are many MPs who want to come back, and he was delighted,"
Hun Sen said.
The King left Siem Reap with little fanfare and flew to Beijing for scheduled medical
treatment and tests. Palace staff refused to speculate on when he might return.
Before leaving, King Sihanouk continued to move away from his role of Constitutional
monarch by asking National Assembly President Chea Sim to amend the Constitution
to relieve him of the duty of guarantor of the nation's borders.
"I have no power, no means to assure the territorial integrity of Cambodia,"
the King wrote in the Oct 21 letter, written in French. The Prime Minister and the
government should be responsible for Cambodia's independence, neutrality and territorial
integrity, he wrote.
Six days later, the King issued a clarifying statement to say he called for the constitutional
change after receiving reports that Vietnamese citizens were "illegally occupying
Cambodian border villages near south-Vietnam".
One Funcinpec member said the King's letter was "clearly an act of provocation"
aimed at the international community as it was written in French and would have to
be translated into Khmer for Chea Sim to read it.
The King left six days before his Oct 31 birthday - usually one of the largest celebrations
of the year - which was feted, as he had asked, without official ceremonies.
After his departure, the King called for "100 percent reunification and reconciliation,
and to take peace as the foundation of national construction and development, independence
and territorial sovereignty" in a Nov 4 Independence Day message.
But signs of reconciliation - or even negotiation - appeared to be few and far between.
While CPP sources said that talks with Ranariddh's loyalists were possible, the key
issue was the role of the King.
One senior CPP official said there was no way that Hun Sen could agree to anything
resembling a "roundtable" mediation by the King.
"If you accept to sit at the table with the King, you accept that he will have
the power. Everyone will have to give the last word to the King and the last word
of the King, like it or not, will always be in favor of his son."
However, there are hints that an official return by some of the self-exiled politicians
- who have formed the Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD) - may be possible.
The UCD is awaiting a response from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on
whether he will authorize an "advance team" to visit Phnom Penh under UN
auspices, one UCD member said by telephone from Bangkok on condition of anonymity.
One Funcinpec official who has already chosen to return is Deputy Prime Minister
Ing Kieth, who had been in Europe for medical treatment since the July fighting.
Kieth, previously considered a Ranariddh loyalist and who has been pilloried by Hun
Sen in the past, came back to Cambodia Oct 31. Asked for an interview at the airport
before Hun Sen's Nov 4 departure to Japan, Kieth said: "I don't want to talk."
The deputy prime minister looked pallid and frail when he resumed his National Assembly
seat the following day.
Ten members of the UCD, meanwhile, called in a Nov 1 letter for the current assembly
session to be suspended "until such a time when the political and military situation
in Cambodian returns to normal, i.e. to what it was before the 5-6 July coup."
The letter was signed by Prince Ranariddh, Son Soubert, Norodom Sirivudh, Hong Sun
Huot, Ahmad Yahya, Prak Chantha, Son Chhay, Khun Phinob, Min Saroeun, and Khin Yean.
Despite the plea, the assembly was convened as scheduled, to begin debate on the
draft election law.
The draft election law and the political parties law - which was passed by MPs last
month - make up much of the legislative frame work for next year's elections.
The legislation has come under fire from Cambodian analysts and foreign donors who
say it does not go far enough to ensure free, fair and credible elections.
A key issue for exiled parliamentarians, and potential election donors attempting
to assess whether elections can be credible, is the fate of Prince Ranariddh.
While Hun Sen has called on the self-exiles to return, he continues to demand that
the Prince stand trial on charges that amount to treason.
The draft election law includes a ban on convicted felons running for office - a
passage, critics say, aimed at preventing Ranariddh's participation in the elections.
Hun Sen and Japanese government officials were expected to discuss the self-exiles
and elections during his five-day visit to Tokyo. "The issue of elections will
be one of the main issues," said Hun Sen adviser Prak Sokhon.
The Japanese government, Cambodia's largest single aid donor, has repeatedly called
for the Prince to be allowed to return for the elections.
Even if he is permitted to return, and is granted immunity from the court, other
moves are afoot in Phnom Penh to keep Ranariddh and other Royals away from the 1998
A petition making the rounds at the National Assembly proposes a law to ban "immediate
members" of King Sihanouk's family from engaging in politics. It has been signed
by 24 Funcinpec MPs and three BLDP members from the Ieng Mouly-faction.
Such a proposed law would appear to require an amendment to the Constitution, which
guarantees Cambodians' right to run for office. If CPP puts its 51 MPs' votes behind
the petition, only two more votes would be needed to make such a Constitutional change.
Hun Sen, who has previously proposed banning Royals from politics, said Oct 31 that
the petition "deserves thorough consideration".
One MP, who would not be named, said the petition was pushed forward by Funcinpec
members trying to court Hun Sen's favor.
Peter Schier, of the democracy-promoting Konrad Adenauer Foundation, surmised that
the petition was aimed as much at the King as at Prince Ranariddh.
While the King has expressed a desire to abdicate and denied he would ever reenter
politics, he has been unable to put to rest speculation about a possible return to