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Pardon sets stage for CPP-Royal theater

Pardon sets stage for CPP-Royal theater

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.

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