banan district, Battambang province – Vath Raphal was caught off guard when he spotted the alteration to the Funcinpec sign outside his Phnom Sumpov commune home.
His mood shifted from surprise to anger as he saw the changes that had been made without his knowledge: Where Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s face once was, there was now a sticker of Independence Monument.
“If I had known that they had come to replace the logo I would have stopped them,” Vath Raphal said Thursday, adding that his primary allegiance was not to Funcinpec but Prince Ranariddh and the royal family.
“All of my family support the King,” the 32-year-old said. “I want to take [the altered sign] down from my house. I don’t want to display my affiliation any more.”
When Prince Norodom Ranariddh was stripped of the Funcinpec presidency at an Oct 18 extraordinary congress in Phnom Penh, a decision was made to remove his face from the royalist party logo as well. Funcinpec now faces the task of altering thousands of signs adorning party members’ homes across the country. But the job will likely prove tough, as Vath Raphal is not alone in his objection to the party’s new look.
About 15 Funcinpec members interviewed in Battambang, Siem Reap and Kompong Thom provinces last week almost unanimously said that they are angry with the party’s new leadership and will join the fledgling Norodom Ranariddh Party.
“Wherever Ranariddh goes I follow,” said Heng Ky, 53, of Siem Reap’s Chi Kreng district. “It was the prince that gave Funcinpec a purpose. Without the prince, Funcinpec is meaningless.”
Funcinpec spokesman Nouv Sovathero acknowledged that some Funcinpec supporters have concerns about the prince’s removal, but said they will come around. He also said he is not concerned about them jumping ship to the NRP.
“When we want people to accept something new it takes some time,” he said. “When they don’t properly understand, we can’t say that they oppose us. Once they understand, their suspicions will disappear.”
Funcinpec will explain to party members that Prince Ranariddh was not ousted but simply promoted to the position of historical president, Nouv Sovathero said. He also claimed that the prince is still a part of Funcinpec, just in a different capacity.
Nonetheless, Funcinpec aims to have every party sign in the country redecorated by the end of the year. Nouv Sovathero declined to say how many new logos they had prepared, calling it a “secret party strategy.”
But short of funds to replace every sign that bears the face of Prince Ranariddh, Funcinpec has been forced to use stopgap measures.
These include the use of dinner-plate size stickers of the new, prince-less logo to paste over the old insignia and a slather of blue paint to erase his name and title.
“We won’t allow the picture of Ranariddh to color our conscience or our decisions,” Nouv Sovathero said.
In Kompong Thom’s Santuk district, Hang Em said that although she has voted for Funcinpec in three elections, she is ultimately a Prince Ranariddh supporter.
“I will stay with [the prince],” the 59-year-old said. “When the man came to change my sign, I asked him to take the sign down. But he insisted, saying that the prince had been promoted to the party’s highest honor. I was not convinced,” she said.
Hang Em said that she and her husband, a Funcinpec councilor for Kakoh commune, will join the prince’s new party.
“He doesn’t care about losing his position, he wants to follow the prince,” she said of her husband.
Hong Ren, a party organizer for Bos village in Siem Reap’s Sotr Nikum district, was the only villager interviewed who said she would definitely be sticking with Funcinpec. She said she did not want to join the prince’s new party because she had heard he was corrupt.
“I have informed my villagers that the party has changed presidents…. Six out of 10 will stay with the party,” she said.
Norodom Ranariddh Party spokesman Muth Channtha said Tuesday that the party hopes to capitalize on support from defecting Funcinpec members.
The NRP announced Monday that it would be using former Funcinpec officials as organizers at the local level. Muth Channtha said the NRP plans to make use of their signs as well.
The NRP has prepared about 2,000 weather-resistant plastic banners to be pasted over existing Funcinpec signs, he said.
“This is a temporary measure to show that the Norodom Ranariddh Party exists,” he said.
Nouv Sovathero said Funcinpec will block the plan. All official Funcinpec signs belong to the party and not to the member on whose property it stands, he said.
“If they cover up our signs we will use our legal right to remove [the NRP’s banners],” he said.
But some observers said there may be little Funcinpec can do to re-win the hearts of many of its members.
Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, said that observers across the country are reporting strong support for Prince Ranariddh, especially among older voters. He estimated that about half of Funcinpec members remain devoted to the prince.
Support for Funcinpec has fallen “very quickly” since the prince’s ouster, he said.
The prince’s continuing popularity is tied to people’s love of retired King Norodom Sihanouk, said Kek Galabru, a board member at Nicfec and president of local rights group Licadho.
“Former King Sihanouk gave Funcinpec to his son and that’s all the people remember,” she said. “No matter what you tell them, they cannot be convinced” to reject Prince Ranariddh.
But Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that just because the prince might enjoy support doesn’t mean it will translate into gains at the ballot box.
“I doubt that Prince Ranariddh’s political party has organized enough of a network on the ground,” he said.
“It’s still too early to say that he can challenge a better-structured Funcinpec.”