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Opposition highs and lows

Opposition highs and lows

Sam Rainsy speaks to reporters in Phnom Penh in 2009.

As one-time Funcinpec leader and National Assembly President Norodom Ranariddh was forced from the parliamentary leadership in 2006, US embassy officials cast a worried eye over the state of political pluralism in the Kingdom, according to newly released diplomatic cables.

“What is disturbing is that the [Sam Rainsy Party] is on the sidelines, cheering on FUNCINPEC’s problems, just as FUNCINPEC did nothing to assist the SRP when Hun Sen was attacking the opposition during 2005,” a March 2006 cable states. “Both parties believe they would be beneficiaries of the other’s demise; unfortunately, neither party leader trusts the other enough to overcome past differences and work together to achieve the reforms needed within the Cambodian government.”

The American diplomatic cables released on Tuesday detail the struggles of the Royalist movement through the middle of the past decade, from the perceived frustrations of Ranariddh in being passed over for the kingship to the corruption allegations that dogged the party as Hun Sen sought to oust them from the coalition government. At the same time, the halting reform efforts of the SRP are depicted in the on-again, off-again relations between Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen.

With the 2004 coronation of King Norodom Sihamoni, who drew praise in the cables from American diplomats for his graceful and unassuming style, Ranariddh is said to have displayed “petulance” and alienated fellow Funcinpec members in his apparent frustration at being passed over. Eating dinner with US diplomats in October 2004, three senior Funcinpec officials reportedly “expressed grave doubt in Ranariddh’s leadership ability, suggesting that, rather than raising his stature, he is increasingly making himself a laughing stock”.

As years pass, American diplomats see the once-powerful party undone. “Because of corruption and nepotism, the party is losing support from the people and talented officials, such as the SRP’s Mu Sochua, have left the party,” a Funcinpec party member tells American diplomats, later saying most of the royalist party’s officials were “weak and interested only in womanizing and money”.

Cambodian People’s Party official Prum Sokha, meanwhile, reportedly complained that Funcinpec officials “have bloated the staffing of ministries with relatives and party members without consideration of qualifications or interest in the jobs”.

Former Funcinpec secretary general Norodom Sirivudh reportedly complains in a May 2006 cable that party leader Nhek Bun Chhay and others in the Funcinpec leadership have been almost totally co-opted by the ruling party; Sirivudh thus terms the party “HUNSENPEC”.

Deputy Prime Minister Nhek Bun Chhay said yesterday that allegations that he had sold out the party to the CPP were “for political interest”, and defended cooperation with the ruling CPP since 1993. Norodom Ranariddh party spokesman Pen Sangha could not be reached.

As Ranariddh’s star fell, Sam Rainsy reportedly enjoyed a period of rapprochement with Hun Sen upon returning to the Kingdom in 2006, having fled in relation to a defamation case the previous year. A cable signed by Ambassador Mussomeli from February 2006 recounts a meeting in which Sam Rainsy outlined his strategy for “reconciliation” with Hun Sen. Sam Rainsy was allowed to return to the Kingdom that month following his pardon for a defamation conviction.

“Hun Sen decides everything in Cambodia, and the government institutions, e.g., the courts, the parliament, are just a ‘facade,’ complained Rainsy,” Mussomeli stated. “If Cambodia is ruled by one man, then in order to get anything done, one must begin by talking to that man, said the opposition leader, who added it had been a difficult choice.”

An SRP source even told American diplomats in March 2006 that Hun Sen had “recently offered to take opposition leader Sam Rainsy into the government as a deputy prime minister, possibly with broad authority over various ministries”.

“Rainsy reportedly declined, telling the PM that such a move would be ‘political suicide’ for an opposition leader,” according to the source.

But the July 2008 elections, in which the SRP won a disappointing 26 seats, spoiled any chance of his desired “political reconciliation” with Hun Sen and the CPP. During a meeting in August 2008 with Ambassador Mussomeli, “an animated Sam Rainsy” “continued his single-minded crusade to taint CPP’s election victory” with allegations of “massive electoral fraud”, which the US viewed sceptically.

In later years, American diplomats speak of an apparent rivalry between Sam Rainsy and current Human Rights Party leader Kem Sokha, one that has been borne out in recent months as merger talks between the two groups have suffered a bitter collapse. The difficulties for the opposition continued in 2009, as prominent SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua was locked in a legal battle with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Fellow opposition lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, the wife of Sam Rainsy, reportedly criticised Mu Sochua for picking a fight with the government. “It’s crazy to be fighting this battle,” Saumura reportedly said.

The problems culminated later that year, when charges were filed against Sam Rainsy in relation to a protest he staged in October against alleged Vietnamese encroachment in Svay Rieng province. US ambassador Carol Rodley noted in a November cable: “The Sam Rainsy Party has taken a disruptive approach to a major problem and added toxic elements of racism and anti-Vietnamese sentiment to make it worse.”

SRP lawmakers Son Chhay and Yim Sovann could not be reached for comment yesterday.


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