In recent months, the ruling CPP and the royalist Funcinpec parties appear to be the best of friends.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cabinet Minister Sok An attended Funcinpec’s party congress in March and sat on stage with Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Leaders of the two parties also hugged each other and gave a champagne toast to celebrate the signing of a joint declaration pledging to make the country’s first commune elections fair and free of violence.
The CPP and Funcinpec are the closest the two parties have ever been, and it’s hard to imagine that four years ago, the parties were at each other’s throats.
Today marks the anniversary of the factional fighting that broke out between forces loyal to then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and then-second prime minister Hun Sen. The battles ruined the Funcinpec party, which had only a few months to regroup and prepare for the 1998 elections.
“It seems like at this stage, the party leaders are thinking what happened in the past belongs to history,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “And especially Funcinpec seems to have forgotten about all their members who were killed during the fighting. The gesture of the CPP attending the Funcinpec congress was very significant.”
But Prince Norodom Sirivudh’s official appointment today as secretary-general of Funcinpec may put the future relationship of the coalition partners in question. The outspoken and popular Prince Sirivudh and Hun Sen are not known to have a cordial relationship. And though Prince Ranariddh said the date of today’s ceremony for Prince Sirivudh has no significance, it’s hard to ignore that the event is taking place the same day the first shots were fired in the 1997 factional fighting.
Many Funcinpec members hope Prince Sirivudh’s leadership will rejuvenate the party, which has been seen as complacent and in decline since the 1997 fighting. A strong Funcinpec could mean problems for the CPP, as well as a renewed royalist relationship with the opposition party, analysts said.
“The CPP will pay close attention to Prince Sirivudh,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, which is chaired by the prince. “Funcinpec has to find someone who can reinvigorate the party and Prince Sirivudh is that guy.”
Prince Sirivudh returned to Cambodia in 1999 after three years in exile—his punishment for being convicted in absentia to 10 years in prison for plotting to assassinate Hun Sen. A local newspaper had printed quotes of a plan to kill Hun Sen, which were attributed to the prince.
He was allowed to come back to his homeland only after King Norodom Sihanouk, his half brother, granted him amnesty as part of the deal that set up the second coalition government between Funcinpec and CPP. Prince Sirivudh has so far declined to publicly comment on his return to politics.
Prince Sirivudh resigned as foreign minister in 1994 to protest the ouster of now opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was Funcinpec’s finance minister. Like Prince Sirivudh, Sam Rainsy was seen as too outspoken.
But since the 1998 elections, when Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party marched together to protest the results that gave the majority vote to CPP, the royalist party has been trying to distance itself from the opposition. During the Funcinpec congress, Prince Ranariddh blamed the royalists’ 1998 loss on the Sam Rainsy Party.
The Sam Rainsy Party, as it does every year, is holding a Buddhist ceremony today to remember those who died during the 1997 fighting.
“We hope that with Prince Sirivudh, the SRP and Funcinpec can at least improve bilateral relations,” said Sam Rainsy Party cabinet chief Phi Thach. “But we cannot ensure that it will have a good impact on Cambodian society as a whole. Many people know Sirivudh is popular in Funcinpec, but I don’t know if he alone can address the difficult situation of Funcinpec’s credibility.”
Indeed, not everyone is confident Prince Sirivudh’s leadership will change the political situation. Some say the strategic alliance between the CPP and Funcinpec is too important to both parties to change the status quo.
“I don’t think this is going to really affect CPP’s relationship with Funcinpec,” Lao Mong Hay said. “Prince Sirivudh is liberal-minded, but I don’t think there will be any overtures to the Sam Rainsy Party because he has to take into consideration Funcinpec’s partnership with CPP. But things could change if Sirivudh says something wild.”
Even former Funcinpec general Nhiek Bun Chhay, who led resistance forces against the CPP in 1997, said Prince Sirivudh’s appointment will not affect the coalition government.
“There is no problem with Prince Sirivudh because this is a Funcinpec issue,” said Nhiek Bun Chhay, now vice chairman of the Senate. “And I don’t know enough about Sam Rainsy’s relationship with Prince Sirivudh, but work in the party is separate from that.”
CPP Cabinet Chief Tep Ngorn said his party is not opposed to Prince Sirivudh’s appointment, even if he “was accused of [trying to] assassinate Hun Sen.”
“If we think about the past, then we’d still be fighting,” he said.