KING Norodom Sihanouk, the old master of Cambodian politics, appears to have strengthened
his position as a power-broker - and left his hardest opponent, Hun Sen, with at
least a little egg on his face - by his deft handling of Ranariddh's pardon.
While Hun Sen has by no means suffered a fatal blow by opening the way for Ranariddh's
return to Cambodia, analysts say that the King - the CPP's most feared rival - has
certainly boosted his own political reputation, battered by tireless CPP campaigning.
They credit the King with rising to the occasion by cornering Hun Sen into making
the written request for Ranariddh to be unconditionally pardoned. The King - who
has publicly complained of concerted anti-royal campaigns in the CPP media - had
previously said he would not pardon Ranariddh without Hun Sen and co-premier Ung
Huot's explicit approval.
On March 20, two days after the Prince's second trial, the co-Prime Ministers wrote
to the King saying that a decision on a pardon was up to him. But they added that
a pardon was "meaningless" unless Ranariddh recognized the court's verdict.
While the letter may have been meant as an implicit green light, the King effectively
demanded a clearer one. He said that to grant a pardon would endanger the future
of the monarchy, and he also wrote to his son saying: "Papa is unable to help
brothers or sons, or to find justice for you."
Within 24 hours, Hun Sen asked for a complete and unconditional pardon. "We
understand that only such a request can show that in Cambodia no one aims to place
obstacles before the return of Prince Ranariddh before the elections," Hun Sen
wrote to the King. "The door is always open for Ranariddh to return home to
participate in the election."
The King's reply? He said he couldn't believe the letter was real. "The terms
of this letter are so unbelievable and incredible that I cannot certify its authenticity,"
he wrote in the margin of the letter, according to a report by Agence France Presse.
After receiving assurances from Phnom Penh that the letter was genuine, he granted
Hun Sen's request.
"The King had played a very clever game of boxing in the Prime Ministers,"
one diplomat said. "I think they were able to get the ball into the King's court
and he succeeded in bashing it back quite successfully."
Noting the elevated standard of the election-year game between Hun Sen and the King,
the source added: "Ranariddh better have his jumping shoes on. A lot of challenges
are coming his way."
Other observers suggested that the King, who is expected to return from Beijing on
April 7, may be more confident of renewed prestige from Cambodians and the world.
For the CPP, underlying the election campaign is the knowledge that the King is both
necessary, in order to at least give a tacit endorsement to elections, and a danger,
because of his great popularity. Complicating the issue is the King's relations with
Ranariddh - he has repeatedly expressed scorn for his son's political abilities -
and his desire to ensure the monarchy's future.
Said one CPP loyalist of Hun Sen's agreement to the pardon: "Now he is more
ready to let [Ranariddh] back. He is secure that Ranariddh doesn't have the political
backup that he had in 1993. Hun Sen has to persuade the King to compromise and endorse
the election. If the King is ready to come back, it is an endorsement. Even if he
remains silent, it is an endorsement."
He added: "We have cornered Ranariddh. Ranariddh on his own has no value. Ranariddh,
using the King, has value. If Ranariddh himself becomes a handicap for the Royal
family, they will have to get rid of him.
"His Majesty has to know the world is different. The [CPP] are becoming more
business-like, more practical. There's no way to fight them from abroad anymore.
This is really the end of the Royal family. He doesn't only have one son, but an
ideal, to look after. I don't believe any king is ready to give up everything just
for that. His Majesty still has a chance to affect the country."
The CPP loyalist's proviso? "CPP must be given full power," he said.