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Will he, won't he? The new game in town

Will he, won't he? The new game in town

IT'S the latest trivia quiz in town: will Prince Norodom Ranariddh return or won't

he? Imponderables include questions as to the Prince's courage and leadership, and

whether renewed and more unified international pressure on Second Prime Minister

Hun Sen is effective or delusional.

For certain, the announcement of a March 4 military court trial for Ranariddh on

charges of illegally importing arms is not the breakthrough concession it at first

seemed.

At least one other charge - threatening national security by colluding with the outlawed

Khmer Rouge - dangles at some stage in the future over the Prince's head. There is

also a likely civil case against him, brought ostensibly by the widows of the negotiating

team that was killed last February during a Funcinpec-inspired helicopter trip to

meet Ta Mok's guerrillas near Anlong Veng.

"Yeah, that is a problem," was all one international observer managed in

a private response to what appears to be a continuing CPP strategy to keep its main

rival off balance for as long as possible. CPP sources said the real strategy is

more simple and severe: "Overall the CPP doesn't want Ranariddh back and risk

losing the election again."

The Prince is not the only politician to appear on court dossiers in recent weeks.

One of his top commanders, Serey Kosal, has reportedly been convicted by a Battambang

provincial court for stealing antique Khmer statues.

Additionally, criminal complaints and a civil suit have been filed - with the help

of KNP president Sam Rainsy - against Hun Sen in the Kandal provincial court by the

wives of two Funcinpec-loyal RCAF officers killed in the wake of the July fighting.

Rainsy said the plaintiffs charge that Hun Sen ordered their husbands' assassination.

"Now because the election is approaching there is a lot more [international]

attention focused on Cambodia," Sam Rainsy said at a Feb 24 press conference.

"I must seize this opportunity to expose Hun Sen's crimes."

Rainsy explained that seeking monetary damages in a civil suit was mostly symbolic,

but that civil suits are easier and quicker to bring to trial than criminal cases.

He added that he doesn't expect either case to reach trial, but that is apparently

not the point.

"The court will look very bad if it only has one eye - one eye focused on Prince

Ranariddh and the other eye blind," he said, perhaps alluding to Hun Sen's own

war-damaged sight.

Rainsy quipped that the legal actions "have touched Hun Sen's most vulnerable

spot", and the cases did provoke a quick reaction from the Second Prime Minister.

Hun Sen claimed in a Feb 23 speech, the same day Rainsy revealed the civil suit,

that he could call on half a million supporters to demonstrate against those who

have accused him of perpetrating political violence last July.

"They make a complaint about me... maybe I could ask the people to be my defenders

in Phnom Penh," he said according to Reuters. "Don't bring one or two people,

bring half a million."

The sparring between Rainsy and Hun Sen appears to mark the end of a brief "honeymoon"

of cooperation by the two rivals, but Rainsy said a CPP-KNP coalition after elections

is still a possibility if Hun Sen meets his conditions of a ceasefire and truly free

and fair elections.

"So I still have hope... that I and Hun Sen and others could join in a coalition,

but the conditions have not been met."

Ranariddh, for his part, has told that Post that he "will never serve under

Hun Sen" in the future.

Despite the legal and political jockeying, Ranariddh will almost certainly be found

guilty on the weapons charge. And with additional court charges pending or not, if

the Prince is not in country by March 20 then the CPP will apparently have their

way - he will not be able to run for re-election.

"And what will the international community do then?" said one government

source, "pull out of the elections? I don't think so. Hun Sen is prepared to

pay the price for absolute power - does everybody who opposes him know what they

want, and [want it] badly enough to do the same?"

Unless there are changes to the election calendar - and sources say minor tinkering

is a possibility - the Prince must be back in Cambodia on March 20 to establish residency

30 days before the start of voter registration. All candidates must be registered

voters.

The pressure is then apparently on Ranariddh to risk imprisonment upon return. When

asked if the Prince would be arrested if he arrived in Phnom Penh with charges still

outstanding against him, Military Court Director Ney Thol responded: "We have

to abide by the law and the court's procedures. We must do our duty."

However, Ranariddh has found what he considers a solution to the time squeeze. "I

will not stay in Bangkok. I will return to Cambodia, not to Phnom Penh, but to join

the resistance," he said during a Feb 24 interview in Bangkok.

Hun Sen has been stung by the amount of international support that Ranariddh - less

the man, more the democratically elected leader - has been given.

Japan, which thought it had brokered a deal with Hun Sen late last year to have Ranariddh

back, now reports - with very strong support from the US and even from within the

formerly bullish European Union - that another similar agreement has been reached

that will see the Prince convicted in absentia and then pardoned by his father, King

Norodom Sihanouk.

"The key issue is that there are no obstacles for Prince Ranariddh's participation

in the election," said Kazuhiro Nakai, first secretary of the Japanese Embassy.

"We are not pressuring the government but we are advising. Every day the [Japanese]

ambassador talks to Hun Sen."

Ranariddh strongly favors the Japanese "four pillar" peace proposal, asserting

that he will unilaterally comply with his end of the deal - break his military ties

with the Khmer Rouge and order his own forces to stop fighting.

But observers are skeptical as skirmishes continue on both the western and northern

borders of Cambodia.

Halting cooperation with the Khmer Rouge, who military advisers say have more soldiers

in O'Smach than Royalist general Nhek Bun Chhay, will also be difficult for the Prince's

opponents to swallow.

"Without Nhek Bun Chhay and Anlong Veng, Ranariddh is like a naked person,"

said one government source.

Another key piece in the Cambodian jigsaw is how much financial pressure Hun Sen

is now finding himself under, and how this may be biting.

"The government is under a lot of [financial pressure]," said one financial

adviser. "Revenue doesn't match expenditure."

This deficit - keener in dollar terms, because there is still enough riel supply

- is "getting bigger," the source said. "The financial policy is not

in order."

Inside sources maintain that the government is still sweating on whether China can

fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of IMF and other donor budgetary support.

This, they say, would give Hun Sen more breathing space from the "Friends of

Cambodia" grouping, headed by the US and Japan, that is putting increasing pressure

on him.

"But [Chinese help] hasn't happened till now," said one source.

Hun Sen also has at least another unplayed ace up his sleeve: that of a constitutional

amendment to ban royals from politics.

"He knows the momentum of this political game," said another government

source.

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