Prime Minister Hun Sen takes part in a rice-planting ceremony alongside Minister of Hydrology Lim Kean Hor, left, and Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun, right, in Seb commune, Kampong Trolach district, Kampong Chhnang province on September 17. He would later give a speech directing harsh criticism at the Funcinpec Party and its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
P rime Minister Hun Sen, who once told a biographer he always dreamed of becoming a poet or songwriter, has instead proven yet again his world-class reputation as a vociferous orator.
In singular style at a September 17 farm inspection tour of Kampong Chhnang province, the 54-year-old strongman thundered for more than two hours in a gloves-off, scattershot diatribe that was equal parts paddy-field populism and personal potshots aimed at the leader of the royalist Funcinpec Party.
Barefoot, seated on a rattan mat and flanked by a phalanx of senior CPP officials, Hun Sen spoke on subjects ranging widely from workings of water pumps to the death of his mother in 1997. In a discourse that included rare compliments for longtime opposition foe Sam Rainsy and harsh criticism for embattled Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the prime minister mixed cautionary, home-spun humor.
"I know all," he said of a foiled attack on government officials. "Even if you farted, I would still know. You cannot hide from me."
Hyperbole aside, what was perhaps heard most clearly in the address was the sound of the tired CPP-Funcinpec coalition finally cracking asunder. Hun Sen would go on to call for the removal of four senior Funcinpec officials: Serei Kosol, Chea Chanboribo, Tuot Luch and Neuv Kassie. Two days later he would propose the replacement of 15 additional Funcinpec members, all of whom are secretaries or under-secretaries of state. The National Assembly and Senate will vote on the proposed reshuffling in coming weeks.
"I think in reality the coalition government is finished," said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel). "We can see that the coalition now is just a show, intended to keep up the good image of democracy. Funcinpec has no power or influence in the coalition government. For example, to expel Funcinpec officials from the government the CPP must confer with the Prince [Norodom Ranariddh], but the CPP just does what it wants. We can see now the CPP has fully consolidated its power in the government."
Funcinpec has subsequently issued a call to reject Hun Sen's call to replace the party's top officials on the grounds that the proposal violates the tenets of the CPP/Funcinpec Protocol of 2004.
Funcinpec, the French acronym of the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, Economic and Cooperative Cambodia, was founded by King Father Norodom Sihanouk in 1981 in Paris.
Ranariddh replaced his father as party president in 1992 and has held the position ever since. He stepped down as President of the National Assembly on March 14 in the wake of excoriating criticism from the Hun Sen government on issues of nepotism, extramarital affairs, incompetence and lavish personal spending.
On September 18, Hun Sen called for him to be replaced and suggested that henceforth he would be working with Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay. He said Funcinpec had serious divisions inside the party and it has survived only because of the image of the King Father.
"I told Excellency Nhiek Bun Chhay to find some people to replace officials who are still members of the Royal Government," he said. "I suggested to Excellency Nhiek Bun Chhay to select persons in Funcinpec to replace. Even the president of the Olympic Committee [Ranariddh], [I will] not allow him to continue working."
A senior political analyst told the Post that Funcinpec is indeed wracked by internal dispute between two camps - one loyal to Ranariddh and the other to Hun Sen.
"Funcinpec has no unity within the party at the moment and could not present a clear position in the coalition government because of the rift," Panha said.
Kosal, a senior Funcinpec official, told the Post on September 19 that the coalition alliance with the CPP is extremely fragile, its future unsure.
"I cannot predict the future of the sustainability of the alliance between the CPP and Funcinpec," Kosal said. "The blasts by the Prime Minister have had a serious effect on the morale of Funcinpec and we are not an unfeeling stump."
Kosol, who earned the moniker "The Tiger of Battambang" as a fierce military field commander, said the criticism against Funcinpec was an exaggerated political message meant to intimidate partisan officials before the commune and national elections scheduled for 2007 and 2008 respectively.
"The comments were designed to paint color on Funcinpec, because the president of the party has never been thinking about pulling a coup against the Constitution," Kosal said.
Hun Sen's comments came in response to separate statements issued on September 14 by Ranariddh and Prince Sisowath Thomico. The former called for an alliance of democrats and royalists, and the latter for the Government to be dissolved and power handed over to King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
At the Kampong Chhnang ceremony, Hun Sen fielded both requests bluntly and flatly refused to hand over any power to the King Father.
Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he delivers a speech in Kampong Chhnang province on September 17. Among the many issues he raised in the two-hour address was a request to coalition partner Funcinpec that it replace its longstanding leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
"I think they are trying to find a pretext to topple me through the so-called demand to hand over power to [Sihanouk]. His Majesty did not accept this, but even if he did, I would not give it to him. Let's be clear: this would be betraying the people's will," he said. "Prepare your coffin if you want to dissolve the National Assembly."
The Prime Minister bristled at any suggesttion of a united front forming to compete with the CPP, comparing the situation to the bloody factional fighting of July 1997.
"I will use every means to respond appropriately to what you do. If you opt for military, I'll respond with military. If you opt for politics, I'll respond politically. If you opt for legal, I'll respond legally, he said. "If you use psychological or propaganda warfare, I'll use television, like today."
Hun Sen accused Ranariddh of betraying the coalition agreement by plotting with the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) to topple the ruling CPP.
"I absolutely will not allow you [Ranariddh] to use one leg in the coalition government and the other leg stepping with Sam Rainsy, and must not play the game of alliances to bargain for power in 2007 and 2008 in the government," Hun Sen said. "[You] must clearly confirm whether you want to stay, or you want to go out. For me, I would push you out in one move."
Chanboribo, spokesman for Funcinpec and Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Information, told the Post on September 19 that there is still strong support for Funcinpec at the grassroots level, and the publicized rift exists only at the top levels.
"I think that the problems inside Funcinpec are because someone has come to interfere [in the coalition government] and the national and international community will understand about this issue," Chanboribo said. "I am happy now that I have full time to work for Funcinpec [with] Samdech Krom Preah [Ranariddh] as the president."
But evidence suggests that Hun Sen has had enough of Funcinpec.
"I say the truth now. It seems I cannot go any further with Funcinpec," Hun Sen said in his televised and radio broadcasted speech. "I prefer to have a clever enemy than an ignorant friend, to have a stronger enemy than to have a weak friend."