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Triumphant return to Le Royal lobby

Triumphant return to Le Royal lobby

WORDS AT HEADQUARTERS, MARCH 31

T he old Funcinpec cast reunited in Phnom Penh March 30, all smiles, tears and

self-congratulations, hogging the headlines on most TV channels around the world

except those on the CPP-dominated Cambodian airwaves.

"My return has been broadcast all over the world except Cambodia. It is very,

very strange," Prince Ranariddh said at a rally at Funcinpec headquarters the

following day.

Beaten with guns last July and out-maneuvered in almost every political skirmish

since 1993, about 600 officials and friends loyal to this fractured party sweated

out Ranariddh's return in Pochentong Airport's air-conditioned VIP lounge and in

fierce sun outside.

It's been a downward roller-coaster for Ranariddh in the last nine months: coup'ed,

tried, convicted and pardoned. And he wasn't here for any one of them. Many were

interested how the old Funcinpec had changed, if at all.

It was an odd, almost desperate atmosphere - part ecstasy, part anxiety, together

all wrapped in the finest cut of men's suits and women's silk sarongs.

The government kept the red carpet hidden because this was merely the return of the

"Fun-cinpec party president". Funcinpec muttered publicly in reply that

the red carpet should be "kept for [Khmer Rouge defector] Ieng Sary".

Outside the airport, 1,000 or so royalist supporters who had been ferried there in

party buses chanted "Funcinpec, Funcinpec" and clutched at the bars of

the parking lot fence.

ON HIGH, WAVING FROM LE ROYAL BALCONY

Almost at their shoulders were semi-professional anti-Ranariddh protesters, holding

up some perplexing signs: "Losing the cloths and oxen, pigs by Prince",

said one; "Don't bring the fire into social family. Don't bring dispute into

society. Don't show the property to the robber," said another.

Asked why they were there, one protester said: "We were told that if we do this

for three days we will receive lunch and 5,000 riel." Most were squatters living

near Hun Sen Park.

Did you know that Ranariddh is coming back to Cambodia? "Oh, yes! We are very

excited." Then, why are you holding that sign over your head? "Because

it is hot and I want some shade."

Just maybe there was a hint of spontaneity and sincerity among the swelling number

of supporters who Ranariddh later referred to as his "common people", those

who said they were not promised money to attend the arrival.

Inside, Funcinpec personalities swapped slightly hysterical stories with one another.

"You brave, brave, brave person," screeched one of Ranariddh's foreign

hangers-on as she hugged and loudly air-kissed a Khmer woman, who offered an embarrassed

grin in return.

Many had not fled Phnom Penh nine months ago, but had instead toughed it out here.

One woman seized the moment to come out of hiding - having been threatened by "300

policemen" months before - to ask for security. A distant relative of Ranariddh

had character enough to dismiss questions about his own safety: "No, it has

been OK. I've got my companies and you have to remember that money talks in Cambodia."

CLAMORING FOR THE PRINCE

The first hint of the tension and mass confusion that was to follow Ranariddh around

during his five-day stay came just after his Thai Airways flight touched down about

1pm.

What was threatening to be an orderly welcome crumbled under the weight and bloody-mindedness

of Royal supporters and the local and international press. Bedlam broke out, as one

put it, in a scrum not unlike that at the end of the OJ Simpson trial.

There had been a game attempt the night before to organize a "press pool",

but that proved to be a splendid farce.

Ranariddh's entourage lurched from the plane to the "correct" exit gate,

then stumbled over itself back to another gate, leading the Prince smack into the

middle of the crowd.

Ranariddh, smiling wildly and sweating, was jostled and crushed, no less than everyone

else trying for a special quote or shot. Some cameras were broken, shoes were lost,

and Ranariddh never got to speak, let alone observe the niceties that the "press

pool" organizers had promised.

But Funcinpec refused to see the rabble of reporters and cameramen as braying hyenas

at a still-breathing banquet - journalists instead were their friends. Their new,

best chums.

"You can help us, you must help us," said one Funcinpecer - not necessarily

famed for his love of free speech in days gone by - to any journalistic ear he could

bend.

So too were foreign diplomats. Soul mates each and every distinguished one. Pillars

of democracy. Friends of Cambodia.

And the United Nations. And human rights groups. ASEAN. King Sihanouk.

Even Samdech Hun Sen.

Just about everyone got a mention - ranging from conciliatory to fawning - as Clan

Funcinpec seemed for a moment to almost believe that a fragrant garden path was being

opened to them, leading to the July elections.

"They didn't talk to us in 1994, or '95. They didn't really need or want to,"

grumbled one foreign journalist about the increasingly belligerent attitude Funcinpec

had toward the press until the end of the salad days. "But when things started

going bad, suddenly everyone began being very helpful, didn't they? Even [Ranariddh's

protocol officer] Christine Penn!"

When the Prince's motorcade left the airport, the crowd outside erupted into applause

and cheers. Some of the paid protesters abandoned their placards and joined in the

party.

The motorcade of security guards, diplomats, journalists and supporters wound its

way to Le Royal, the capital's most expensive hotel. Frightened party faithful had

fled to the Cambodiana Hotel during the July coup, and they didn't want to return

there.

"The Cambodiana [represents] the coup. We had to move on," said one Funcinpecer.

Preparations at the hotel started long before the Prince reached the capital. By

mid-morning hundreds of supporters awaited him in front of the hotel.

"I have been here with my husband and other people from Prek Ho village since

7am," said one woman.

Minutes after entering the hotel, Rana-riddh thanked several attending ambassadors,

asking them to work toward credible elections. The ambassadors affected warm smiles

and nodded enthusiastically for the few seconds the Prince gestured to them. As soon

as Ranariddh turned back to reporters, the smiles quickly vanished and the diplomats

went back to looking plain worried.

During the first few hours in Le Royal's plush lobby, it almost seemed as though

those who had scuttled out of the country in July had returned really believing in

themselves. "I have come back to stay!" said Secretary of State for Defense

Ek Sereywath. "I hope I can stay."

But gradually as the afternoon died into early evening, the bravado waned. One official,

while trying to find enough platitudes to thank "international friends",

captured the schizophrenia under which the Royalists were increasingly laboring.

Kissing and hugging journalists, he said Funcinpec was going to campaign and win.

"Win!" The United States and the United Nations had thrown their weight

behind the Prince, he said. "I'm happy, very very happy."

Funcinpec had no money, but he was "optimistic" that overseas Cambodian's

would fund the Royalist campaign.

"The international community is not going to put up with what's going on,"

he said, talking about Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's iron rule of the Kingdom.

He then paused for thought, and looked up suddenly a different man. "Will Funcinpec

win?" he sighed. "Then we will never have peace in Cambodia. Hun Sen has

all the structure from the villages on up.

"Funcinpec is very worried about the structure, about the campaign. I am very

worried about my security," he said, his depression deepening the longer he

spoke. "I'm sorry, I cannot go on with this interview."

He didn't last the full five days in country, leaving early because he was scared.

He reckoned he was being followed.

OUT OF CONTROL AT FUNCINPEC HQ

Time and again even the most innocuous of questions prompted the "returnees"

to slide from chirpiness, to melancholy, to bitterness, to fear.

"I fear for my safety," nodded one of Ranariddh's advisers. "Even

here," he said, staring around the lobby, "I fear for my security. I will

be killed if I left here, I know it."

Ranariddh and Cambodia's international "Friends" may have viewed this flying

visit as a test of the political waters. If so, then the only thing they learned

was that Funcinpec candidates will feel much safer campaigning from Le Royal lobby

than anywhere else in the Kingdom.

The bigger tests - saying "Hello" to the CPP bosses and asking "So

what's the story with our old mates Nhek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal?", and "Can

we please get a TV campaign slot?" - seemed best left for a much cooler day.

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