Photo by: Sovan Philong
"Fortunately, I am back now": Prince Norodom Ranariddh speaks during his interview with The Post last week.
To begin with, what are your motivations for returning to politics?
There are two main reasons that I have returned to politics. First, since I returned to live in my home country [in 2008] I have been invited by members of the Nationalist Party, the former Norodom Ranariddh Party. More than 11,165 petitions have been sent to me.
The second reason is that though there have been many royalists in our kingdom – in Nhek Bun Chhay’s clan, Keo Puth Reaksmey’s group, and at Chhim Siek Lieng’s side – they have been unable to unify all of the royalists. The royalist group has been divided into hopeless pieces, like children who have no parents. So I believe I must return and gather all the royalists.
I realise that my post as president of the King’s [Supreme Privy Council] is a great and honourable position, but if I cared only my own honour, my own comfortable living, and collecting the three million riels of my salary, it would not be possible to return to reunite the royalists. If possible, we will merge the two [royalist] parties into one.
Doesn’t it all come a little too late, given the parlous state of the royalist movement at the moment?
I don’t think it’s too late for the upcoming commune election in 2012 and it isn’t too late for the national election in 2013. However, what we must do is be honest among the leadership, and follow the royalist purpose and aims in order to establish a new party. Recently, I proposed to resume leadership of my lovely Funcinpec, merging it [with the NRP] into Funcinpec 81 – referring to the year 1981, when the group was founded by the King Father. But the new [party] has been rejected by [Funcinpec Secretary General] Nhek Bun Chhay.
How are the reunification talks progressing now?
I will still continue the unification – at least on my own side, the NRP – if Funcinpec 81 is not accepted. I am confident of the reunification because there is still a connection between the NRP’s members and Funcinpec’s members. I am waiting for Nhek Bun Chhay. If he listens to local members, if he is one of the royalists, if he really wants to see unification, the door is still open for negotiation. I gave him a turn to kick at the ball, but he hit it over.
Some are suspicious that your return to politics is just a ploy by Prime Minister Hun Sen to divert attention away from the punishment of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who you said has received a “red card” of 12 years in prison. What is your response to this?
I have given a very clear reason for my return to politics. It’s not that I am a pawn, a tool to confuse national and international opinion. Moreover, if we listen to Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen, he seems not to want my return to politics. Recently, he stated clearly, as did [CPP lawmaker] Cheam Yeap, that Hun Sen likes Nhek Bun Chhay from Funcinpec: he does not need the NRP.
You’ve said that you are seeking a coalition deal with the Cambodian People’s Party, yet have also said that you’d like to remain independent. How do you intend to strike this balance?
In Cambodia we have only three possibilities in the political field. One is the CPP, another one the opposition. But I do think we have a middle path. I don’t like the word “collaboration” – collaboration sounds like during the Second World War when Petain of [Vichy] France collaborated with the Nazis. I rather like to talk about cooperation. I share some concerns with the opposition parties; only the approaches are different. I believe that if we cooperate with the ruling party in the same system, maybe it will be more efficient.
What is the middle way? It means that we gather royalists under one party. This force shall convert into seats at the commune councils, at the districts, provinces and municipalities, and later, in July 2013, it will convert to more seats in the National Assembly.
When we win seats, what will we do with them? This is important. The opposition party has been opposing for four mandates already, and I respect it. In a multiparty system, the opposition is needed. But in Cambodia, the culture of the opposition party is only to oppose. I’ve never seen any actual results of any proposal from the opposition party. Corruption is still an issue, land is still an issue, so is the independence of the judiciary. There are many issues which remain the same – the CPP still rules.
Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha has said that if your policies don’t change, then he won’t lend you his support. But given your rather turbulent relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen, would you challenge him as you did before he ousted you in July 1997?
When I use the word “oppose”, it means that I am entering into the opposition group. I prefer to choose the new phrase “contribute to addressing national issues”, which implies that flexibility is not always a good thing. For example, in the past I was very unsuccessful at being flexible. We [Funcinpec] were partners, but most of our ministers applied a flexible theory: when they saw others get involved in corruption, they did so as well. They forgot their basic values and origins and political approach. This was our big mistake.
Therefore, I ask Kem Sokha to wait and see how I am doing, but not to hope that I’ll become an opposition party, nor that I will serve as the front of any party opposing the CPP. I will not do it because I am a son of the King Father, who is siding with Hun Sen. The King Father wrote on December 10 that he would continue to support Hun Sen 100 percent until the end of his life. Norodom Sihamoni is the King of Cambodia and Samdech Hun Sen is prime minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia – how can I stupidly do that alone?
Some critics – including the prime minister – have said that royalist parties risk dragging the monarchy into a dirty political game and sullying its reputation. What is your response?
We have to separate two things in a very clear manner. One: His Majesty the King must be politically neutral, meaning that he must not have any political party. The second thing is this: I do believe that in a country like Cambodia – even like in Thailand – [royals] should have a big political party.
I’d like to remind you that my father, in 1955, after independence, saw that the monarchy of the Kingdom was in a very difficult situation, politically and socially. So, he abdicated, he stepped down, to form a movement – the Sangkum Reastr Niyum – and he successfully resolved the problem. And may I remind you that Samdech Hun Sen did not say, “Prince Ranariddh, you must stop making politics”. I helped him to resolve critical problems, I made him prime minister three times, in ’93, ’98 and 2003. He didn’t say anything at that time – he took advantage of this.
It is my position that the royal family should not be a pariah of politics. Our constitution says very clearly that our citizens have a sacred right to have political activities.
In the 1950s and 1960s, peasants and villagers would go to the Royal Palace with their grievances. Today they go to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s doorstep. How do you see the role of the monarchy today?
My father was called the “pink Prince” – la prince rose – because at that time he was very close to the socialists. It was by necessity, you see, but inside, his socialism rather meant social justice, and he opened up the doors of the Royal Palace for all of the people to come and to submit to him their difficulties. I remember two families even went to the Royal Palace because their dispute was about one palm tree!
But for the time being, people feel that the real power is held by the Prime Minister instead of by His Majesty the King, and the King likes to show that he is politically neutral, and that by law, in a parliamentary system, the one who has the substance of state power is rather the prime minister.
How did growing up under your father’s regime shape your political outlook?
For me, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum was a golden era of Cambodia: 15 years of peace when you had wars all around. It is one of the greatest achievements of my father. Secondly, he developed the country without a lot of assistance from outside. And thirdly, I think his real power was based on the people. You could say maybe “people power”, but the participation of the people through a lot of mechanisms: you had the [National] Congress, you had the royal audience, etc.
I think the SRN is a model of the unity of the nation. I think this is most important: unity between the leadership and the grassroots, and if you don’t have it, you won’t be able to solve the real problems of the country. You see, for my father, the priority was the country, and secondly his own party, and thirdly, the members of his party. But I’m afraid that now, the first [priority] is the members of the parties.
We were struck by a comment you made a couple of weeks back, when you said politics was as “addictive as opium”. What are some of your more personal motivations for getting back into politics?
Politicians can’t really abandon politics, but there are in my opinion two types of politics. One, to satisfy yourself. Another one is to really serve the country. So if the opium is to really serve the country, I think it’s good to have that opium. For me, the opium is to be with the people and to serve the people.
What do you think about the current development of the country, and how has it changed since you last had a prominent role in government?
Firstly, I must say I did not have enough time to serve the country, to [put] the country on the way of progress. But I’d like to remind you that according to the report of the World Bank in 2003, which I used for my electoral campaign, in terms of FDI, the best years were from 1993 to 1998. In 1997 I was toppled. The investment law of 1994 – I was the architect of that law, which was able to attract a lot of investment to Cambodia.
My assessment is this: Cambodia has made progress, but not enough compared to the other countries in the region. But you have to create an atmosphere conducive to creating investment. I think that the lack of transparency, the lack of a real independent judiciary create an atmosphere not favourable to attracting serious investment to Cambodia, but I’m not hopeless. I think we will be able to improve the situation.
What do you think history will say about Prince Ranariddh?
Fortunately, I am back in politics, otherwise history would write about me that I wasn’t a real prince of the people. Fortunately, I am back now.