"PLEASE Samdech Hun Sen, allow me to be the opposition from now on," Thach
Reng asked the Second Prime Minister in a speech in the National Assembly after MPs
voted to lift Prince Norodom Ranariddh's parliamentary immunity.
Hun Sen, according to Thach Reng, smiled but did not reply.
A former anti-Vietnamese resistance chief, a Lieutenant General in the Royal Cambodian
Armed Forces and a Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party MP for Phnom Penh, Thach Reng
was the only MP not to vote against Prince Ranariddh in the National Assembly Aug
While most of his peers in the 'opposition' have fled Cambodia, Reng chose to stay
and - albeit cautiously - voice his dissent in the National Assembly. After the vote,
he was mobbed by journalists who pounced on him as the only opposition still existing
within the walls of parliament.
"I thought it over very carefully. I wanted to do what is fair. I acted according
to my conscience," he said the day after the assembly meeting.
"God told me I should not be afraid," he said. "Hun Sen said he wanted
opposition, so I will be it. A democracy without an opposition is a democracy without
Reng said that, after the vote, he was congratulated by some of his colleagues. What
he did was good, they told him.
He recounted his version of what happened during the closed-door vote on the lifting
of the First Prime Minister's immunity, which was decided by a show of hands.
Chhan Veng, the assembly's deputy secretary-general, read a letter from the Phnom
Penh military court asking for Ranariddh's immunity to be removed so he could be
investigated for treason.
Loy Sim Chheang, the Funcinpec secretary-general and acting assembly president, asked
Minister of Justice Chem Sgnuon (CPP) whether any special proceedings were required
for the vote. The answer was negative. "Let's vote," said Chheang.
"I waited for a minute and raised my hand to explain my position," said
Reng. "First, I wanted to know whether we were using proper procedure. I still
think that it was not valid because... the letter from the military court came straight
to us without passing by the government or the National Assembly standing committee.
I do not agree with that."
Once Reng finished his explanation, another speaker - CPP MP Chhour Leng Huot - argued
that other MPs had been stripped of their immunity the same way, an apparent reference
to Ranariddh's uncle, Prince Norodom Sirivudh.
With the debate out the way, MPs were asked to raise their hands for the vote. The
counting followed, and the result was declared - 99 votes, out of 99 MPs attending
the meeting, in favor of removing Ranariddh's immunity.
Reng - who had not raised his hand - protested that the count was wrong.
"My neighbors also said that I hadn't raised my hand, and they apologized. I
asked again to talk and explained why I did not raise my hand," said Reng.
First, despite the explanations of the proceedings given to MPs, Reng said that he
was not convinced. Secondly, he said: "I love my country, I love my nation,
I love my National Assembly. I want it to be credible."
It was here that Reng asked the blessing of Hun Sen to be "the opposition"
The vote on Ranariddh's immunity was noted - 98 out of 99 MPs in favor - and the
assembly opened its doors to the press for the subsequent secret-ballot vote on Ung
Huot's nomination to replace the First Prime Minister.
Reng later complained that the second vote was also procedurally incorrect, and that
there had been no opportunity for debate before the ballots were cast.
"The procedure has been completely misused. The First Prime Minister has to
be proposed to the King and by the president of the National Assembly with approval
of the two vice-presidents. They have to propose the candidate to the King. The King
gives the approval and then sends it to the National Assembly for a vote. But in
this case, one of the vice-presidents [BLDP MP Son Soubert] is opposed to that,"
"It is not abnormal to replace a First Prime Minister, but... we need to be
credible to prevent the future generation from blaming us. But as there was no debate,
I was not allowed to say that."
Reng did, however, gain a little support as an opposition force in the second vote:
a total of four MPs voted against Ung Huot's appointment, while six abstained. Huot's
appointment was approved, but only narrowly.
Ironically - or perhaps appropriately - Thach Reng is a beginner at being an MP in
a National Assembly which has long been accused of being little more than a rubber-stamp
for the government. He entered the assembly only seven months ago, replacing BLDP
patriarch Son Sann, who resigned.
"I replaced Son Sann in January, just three days before the end of the session.
Then the Parliament was closed for seven months. I didn't really have the occasion
to express my views," he recalled.
Now, he said, "I feel very free here, very free. I do not have any office. I
am not member of any commission. I just represent my voice."
Free is what Thach Reng has tried to be since he started his military career in 1954.
"As there was no war at that time, I chose to be in the smart part of the army
and I studied military engineering." He went to France and to the United States
to continue his studies, and later got a law degree at the end of the 1960s. He rose
to the rank of general and fought in the Lon Nol army before, upon the Khmer Rouge's
victory, going into exile in the United States in 1975.
One of his first jobs was as a donut baker. "First, when they knew I was a general,
the company did not want me to take the test. They said that I would not be able
to do it. But I insisted and I succeeded in making the donuts in time.
"The name of the franchise was DK donuts. People said it meant Democratic Kampuchea
donuts. It didn't, it was the brand name."
In 1982, when he left the US to join the anti-Vietnamese resistance at the Thai border,
Thach Reng had two donut shop franchises, as well as cars and houses for his family.
He joined the resistance group led by Son Sann, but the Thais were reluctant to have
him at the border - because of his past in the special forces - so he was sent to
France as a representative of the party.
Reng recalled the first time he met Hun Sen.
"I remember very well. It was on July 25, 1988 in Indonesia during the first
round of peace negotiations. At the coffee break, he walked to me and asked 'Your
Excellency, can I call you Bong (elder brother)?' I responded "It is a great
honor for me, but I reserve the right to call you Pha-on (younger brother).' He was
not sincere. Since then he kept on calling me Excellency."
Today, the veteran soldier doesn't see any point in going to the jungle to join a
new resistance against the Hun Sen-Ung Huot government.
"I think struggling within the community is better than struggling from outside.
I believe that some of my colleagues will have some problems surviving in the jungle.
It will take maybe 10, 20 or 30 years to overthrow today's government.
"I want to present a reasonable and constructive opposition."
Hun Sen, for one, was apparently a little surprised at Thach Reng's decision to stay
in Cambodia when many of his more outspoken colleagues chose to leave the country.
When the National Assembly was this month first reopened, Hun Sen spotted Thach Reng
and went over to him. "He said: 'You are still here, you did not leave - this
is the behavior of a real fighting general'," said Reng.
Days later, when Hun Sen and Ung Huot - armed with the National Assembly's approval
of Huot as the new Prime Minister - departed Phnom Penh Aug 11 to visit the King
in Beijing, Thach Reng was among the dignitaries who gathered to bid them farewell.
Hun Sen, when he saw Reng, greeted him: "Hello, Mr Democrat..."