Voicing unprecedented dissent, senior Funcinpec officials spoke out in criticism of their embattled party leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh on Thursday, as a party rift widened over Prince Ranariddh’s nomination of Prince Norodom Chakrapong as Funcinpec’s new secretary-general.
Funcinpec Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bun Chhay announced that he had put his own name forward for the party’s second-highest post, and called Prince Chakrapong’s appointment unacceptable.
Nhiek Bun Chhay said by telephone Wednesday that he had asked Prince Ranariddh not to announce the selection of his half-brother Prince Chakrapong, “because the majority of party members cannot accept [him].
“I and most members see Chakrapong as an unqualified person, with an unpleasant image, to lead the party,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
He and other Funcinpec veterans called for reform and internal elections in the party, which appears to be in disarray after weeks of harsh public criticism from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The crisis coalesced on March 2, when Nhiek Bun Chhay was dismissed from his post as co-minister of defense, along with Prince Norodom Sirivudh, who was co-minister of interior. The following day, Prince Ranariddh stepped down from the presidency of the National Assembly.
“There are reasons Chakrapong is not qualified for the post,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “Firstly, in 1992, he led Sihanoukists to join the Cambodian People’s Party. Secondly, he led a secessionist movement to oppose the Funcinpec victory in the 1993 election. And thirdly, he set up his own party, [the Chakrapong Khmer Spirit Party, in 2002], insulting and attacking Funcinpec.”
“There are other problems,” Nhiek Bun Chhay added, without elaborating.
Nhiek Bun Chhay named Funcinpec’s Deputy Premier Lu Laysreng and senior minister You Hokry as two other possible candidates for secretary-general.
You Hokry could not be contacted on Thursday. Lu Laysreng said he would not run for secretary-general, but criticized Prince Ranariddh’s selection of his half-brother.
“[Prince Chakrapong] was not honest to the Funcinpec party and we should not allow him to serve the party in that big position,” Lu Laysreng said. “The prince is a good friend of mine, but politically, we cannot accept him because he comes in and out of the party. He used to curse the party.”
Prince Chakrapong, who was also named Senate first deputy president by Prince Ranariddh this year, said by telephone that he is fully qualified to take the secretary-general post. “If we respect the [party] president, we should follow his decision,” he said.
Funcinpec lawmaker Khieu San said Prince Ranariddh’s resignation from the Assembly presidency was meant to allow him to attend to just such party reforms.
He said the prince had also named four deputy secretary-generals: current deputy secretary-general Chhim Seak Leng, senior party member Ung Huot, former defense co-minister Tea Chamrath and Senate second deputy president Por Bunsroeu.
Nhiek Bun Chhay also said that in the next few days the steering committee, Funcinpec’s top body, will be pared down from 210 to 39 members.
“There are a lot of unhappy people right now, after Prince Ranariddh resigned,” royalist Senator Prince Sisowath Sirirath said.
“People have always looked to him. If he wants to change and reform the party, we must have the election of people at the leadership level,” he said. “The party is in disarray…. My feeling is that since 1998, Prince Ranariddh is not surrounded by qualified and able people.”
He said, “For the sake of national reconciliation of course everyone should be welcomed by the party, but it does not mean that, having left the party once, that you should be able to come back and go to the top. You have to line up.”
He added that defections from Funcinpec could ensue.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an open invitation to unhappy Funcinpec members to join the CPP. But Nhiek Bun Chhay and others said they have no plans to take up the offer. CPP officials would not say Thursday whether they were in discussion with any potential defectors.
“It is an internal affair of Funcinpec,” Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon said.
“I think the prince still has control of his party. All I can tell you is that the stance of the prime minister is to have a coalition government with Funcinpec until the end of the mandate.”
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay called the grumbling of dissent within Funcinpec a poor sign for Prince Ranariddh’s party. He noted that his own party has had to postpone the selection of its secretary-general until December, in order to ensure that the process will be democratic.
“The appointment of the secretary-general of the party, and the appointment of the second speaker in the parliament have to be done in a way that the party members and party leaders are satisfied with it,” Son Chhay said, noting that Funcinpec’s worries appear to be multiplying.
“I worry that the party might be breaking apart,” he said.