It was 1993, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Prince Norodom Ranariddh were sitting together on an airplane, having a father-and-son chat unique even for a royal family.
National elections were approaching, but it wasn’t a pep talk that father was giving son. Prince Sihanouk was trying to convince Prince Ranariddh to give up his bid for prime minister as a Funcinpec candidate and join forces with the CPP.
Here is Prince Ranariddh’s version, as related in the new book “Warrior Prince” by Bangkok-based journalist and author Harish Mehta:
“My father asked us to join the CPP, not to have a separate identity. He simply said, ‘You have to go into the CPP.’ I kept smiling. My father knew very well that when I said nothing it meant that I disagreed.”
According to Prince Ranariddh, his father sent a stronger message later in the campaign through Prince Norodom Sirivudh, who was also working on the Funcinpec campaign.
“Before the election my father told Prince Sirivudh, ‘Please tell your boss [Ranariddh] that in a Monte Carlo casino there used to be a revolver, and if you won, you won, but if you lost, the casino provided the loser with the pistol.’ It was a terrible message.”
On election day, Prince Ranariddh went to Olympic Stadium to vote, and then went to the Royal Palace to visit his father.
“My father told me, ‘My son, I am very sorry to tell you that you will not win the elections.’ Could you imagine, after casting your ballot to hear from your father that you will not win!”
A word of caution concerning these statements. Prince Ranariddh spoke them, probably in frustration and anger, in late November, 1997. He was living in Bangkok, having fled Cambodia after being removed from the prime minister’s job he won in that 1993 election, following factional fighting earlier in 1997 between forces loyal to him and forces loyal to the new prime minister, Hun Sen.
Writing down these words was Mehta, whose book was formally launched last week in Bangkok.
Knowing how much has changed in both Cambodia and Prince Ranariddh‘s life since 1997, Mehta says he sent a list of quotes from the book to its subject in case he had a change of heart.
According to Mehta, the prince didn’t acknowledge the list for three years. Finally the author sat down with Prince Ranariddh last May.
“When you sent me the manuscript on the interviews, I did not respond because I wanted you to have complete freedom of expression in what you are writing,” Mehta quoted the prince as saying in May.
Prince Ranariddh apparently isn’t totally comfortable with the book. Approximately 250 people were invited to a book dinner last Thursday night in Bangkok. Representatives of Prince Ranariddh sent a message that he would attend and listed nearly 20 other government officials and advisers who would join him.
But on Thursday morning, the Ranariddh party canceled, even though some of them were already in Bangkok.
“He told me he liked the book. I can only guess he fears it will cause him some political problems at home,” Mehta said Saturday.
Prince Ranariddh could not be reached for comment Sunday. Prince Sirivudh, now secretary-general of Funcinpec, declined to comment on the book.
Prince Ranariddh spoke frankly during 18 hours of interviews spread over a 10-day period in 1997, Mehta said. For example, the prince discussed China’s alleged assistance to the Khmer Rouge with a vehemence he probably wouldn’t use today.
“We have to clearly blame China,” he said of the 1975-79 period. “China could bring me to any court, I will not retract my words. My father does not have any interest in talking like this. To say that China was not aware is just not true.”
He accuses the Chinese of helping the Khmer Rouge almost exclusively among the opposition groups gathered on the Thai border in the 1980s.
“The Chinese helped the non-Communists, but they needed us as a cosmetic to put over the very bad face of the Khmer Rouge. They needed my father, they needed [fellow opposition leader] Son Sann. If the Chinese provided one hundred weapons to the Khmer Rouge, they provided one or two to us,” the prince is quoted as saying.
But it’s Prince Ranariddh’s comments about the King that will raise the most eyebrows. Some examples:
— On being sent to live with his father’s aunt when he was a child: “I never had real parents. Neither a real father or a real mother. My father as King was very, very distant….In later years, the political relationship between my father and I could be seen in this light, of a great distance since childhood.”
— On not being allowed to meet visiting dignitaries in his youth: “My father did not invite us [children] when Charles de Gaulle and Zhou Enlai visited us. We were watching those events from afar. One detail about my father is that I did not see him being interested in organizing a line of succession among his own children.”
—On his father refusing him money when he and his new wife returned to France and his post-graduate studies in 1968: “Now we were two. We needed more money. The Queen [Prince Ranariddh’s grandmother Kossamak Nearireath] asked my father if she could exchange money at the official rate for me, and he opposed it….The money for us would not have come from the state budget, but it was the queen’s own money. But in order to get a better rate of exchange, she wanted to exchange it at the official rate instead of going through the black market. Finally, the queen had to go through the black market in order to send me a little money. When my father saw the request coming from his mother, he wrote in red ink, saying ‘no.”’
—On the Khmer Rouge taking control: “It was very clear that when the USA decided to leave Indochina, there was no obstacle to the victory of the revolutionaries. Until the last day, I was confident that my father would come back, that the Khmer Rouge would not betray him, that he would be able to run the country, and bring peace, prosperity and democracy back to Cambodia. Not only me, but seven million Cambodians were wrong in believing it.”
All those words were said in 1997. This past May, when Prince Ranariddh spoke to Mehta, he sounded more like a man who had subsequently returned both to life in Cambodia with the royal family and to politics, through his current job as president of the National Assembly.
“The reality is that the King is in good health,” he said. “I should take advantage of the good health of His Majesty the King who represents unity and peace, in order to strengthen my party. And I should take this opportunity to accomplish the tasks ahead, to live up to the popular mandate I received in my capacity as speaker of the National Assembly. To make the assembly less and less a rubber stamp National Assembly, to make it more and more efficient, open, liberal and democratic.”
The Royal Palace Sunday released a statement signed by the King in which he rebuts what he calls “untruths” in sections of the book.
He said Prince Ranariddh and his sister Princess Bopha Devi were the luckiest and most privileged of his 14 children.
“My mother and my aunt raised and educated them with the greatest care and love, and did so such that they never wanted for anything. It is absolutely false to say that I…forbade my mother from giving him enough money for his stay in France for studies,” the King’s statement read.
Concerning the 1993 elections, the King said, “Funcinpec scored a victory in the legislative elections, having had recourse to a very ample use of my name and my popularity among the people of my country.”
The statement goes on to defend the post-election decision in which Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen ended up sharing power in a coalition government.
The King’s statement concludes by pointing out his role in helping Prince Ranariddh return to the political scene in 1998:
“Without the efforts I took with Samdech Chea Sim and Samdech Hun Sen, and the organization of…meetings in Siem Reap and then in Phnom Penh, Samdech Ranariddh and Funcinpec would not have occupied the important position they have occupied from 1998 to the present day…in the Cambodian nation.”
(Additional reporting by John Gravois and Pin Sisovann)