Pech Sovan grips a gnarled root cut from a tree near the shallow grave where police and human rights workers exhumed the body of her youngest son in 1998.
Her 23-year-old son disappeared after street protests in Phnom Penh against the 1998 election win of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP over Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s Funcinpec.
She keeps the root because it absorbed some of her son’s blood, and his life spirit, she said. He was her second son to die violently because of her family’s active support for the royalist party, she claims.
One year earlier her eldest son, a bodyguard for royalist General Ly Seng Hong, disappeared during bloody fighting in July 1997, when soldiers loyal to Hun Sen ousted then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
She will mourn both sons today during ceremonies to commemorate royalist officials and supporters who died during the July fighting and the extra-judicial killings that took place in the days afterward.
“I’m not simply involved with politics. I’ve lost one home and two of my sons,” said the 49-year-old mother and longtime royalist activist.
“The people who are faithful to Funcinpec are always tearful,” she said.
Her loyalty to Funcinpec remains—she is paid a small salary while working for the party—but she complains that some party officials are aloof and insensitive to the sacrifices of rank-and-file supporters.
“I never betrayed Funcinpec or democracy. But [the party] does not help the people who were faithful,” she said.
Discontent has emerged among royalist supporters and party members since Funcinpec was soundly defeated by the CPP in February’s commune elections.
The election loss has prompted party infighting and sparked criticism that Prince Ranariddh’s coalition with the CPP has politically neutralized the royalists.
This year’s commemoration of royalist deaths during the July fighting was officially moved to today after warnings from the premier that celebrating the anniversary days—July 5 and July 6—could provoke an “incident” and should be canceled.
Mixing disobedience with symbolism, many royalist parliamentarians wore black ties to the National Assembly on July 5. But shifting the anniversary date was seen by some as proof of Funcinpec’s weakness in the face of the ruling party.
Some 50 people died during the three days of street battles in Phnom Penh five years ago, and dozens more—including several senior Funcinpec generals—were killed in the fighting’s aftermath.
Ho Sok, an Interior Ministry secretary of state, was the most prominent Funcinpec official killed. He reportedly was shot dead in an interrogation room at the CPP-controlled Ministry of Interior. Human Rights workers branded it an execution.
UN reports after the July fighting listed dozens of killings that occurred outside the military conflict.
Though Cambodia’s donor community called for investigations of the killings, these never materialized, said Thun Saray, president of human rights group Adhoc.
“It is like the Khmer Rouge trial…. They killed many more people, millions, but have never been punished,” Thun Saray said. “There is no political will to end impunity in Cambodia.”
The 1998 government coalition between Funcinpec and CPP has brought peace and stability to Cambodia. But, the cost has been the alienation of many royalist supporters and rifts among those in the party who want to forge an identity independent of Hun Sen’s party.
Some observers question if the royalists can rebuild party cohesion and public support in time for next year’s general election. The vote, some say, will be an important test for Funcinpec. A poor showing in the polls could also push Cambodia closer to a republic.
“It’s extremely important for Funcinpec to emerge as a strong party. If not, the CPP will call all the shots,” said an Asian diplomat. “For the next government or the future of the royalty, Funcinpec needs to do well.”
Placing photographs of her two dead sons in her handbag, Pech Sovan says despite her disillusionment with some Funcinpec officials she will never abandon Cambodia’s monarchy.
“My grandfather told me the King is truthful, faithful and good,” Pech Sovan said. “We cannot abandon the King.”
A senior Funcinpec official said he knew of Pech Sovan’s loss and her loyalty, but advised she should concentrate more on making a living than party activism.
“Even though she is very active for the party nobody is interested in her. She is a small person, nobody sees her,” he said.