A new wave of discontent is brewing within Funcinpec over the possible return of ex-members who leapt from the side of party president Prince Norodom Ranariddh during the violent times of July 1997, Funcinpec sources say.
While some Funcinpec members support taking back the renegades, others say they feel betrayed by the group of former ministers and secretary of states and do not support their return.
A Funcinpec congress is scheduled for March 19-21.
The most prominent ex-Funcinpec faction formed the Reastr Niyum Party, which traces its origins to the 1997 factional fighting, when renegade Funcinpec officials led by then-foreign minister Ung Huot remained in the capital and cooperated with CPP loyalists after the rout of royalist forces. Ignoring Prince Ranariddh’s ousting of Ung Huot from the party, the CPP-controlled National Assembly appointed Ung Huot to replace the exiled prince as first prime minister and head of Funcinpec.
At the time, Funcinpec members loyal to the prince labeled their colleagues who remained in Phnom Penh traitors. Ung Huot and the others defended themselves by saying they were preventing widespread civil war.
Now, a merger could bring a handful of experienced politicians into Funcinpec’s fold and be seen as a gesture of nation-building. It also could add funds or gifts to party coffers, political analysts said. It is widely believed that some politicians pay for top government posts and use them to generate revenue for their ministries and their own pockets.
Ung Huot insisted Friday that his party’s merger with Funcinpec would send a positive signal of national reconciliation while bolstering the party before the communal elections. “It’s normal,” said Ung Huot, now the Reastr Niyum president, who served stints as education minister and foreign minister for Funcinpec. “I think that our return is not a problem.”
Other top Reastr Niyum members include former agriculture minister Tao Seng Hour, ex-industry minister Pou Sothirak and current Council of Ministers Secretary General Nady Tan, one of the very few Reastr Niyum officials to have a government post. Several Reastr Niyum members have said they would like to be involved again in the nation’s governance and that they are not optimistic about their party’s chances in elections.
One Funcinpec senator, who asked not to be named, said Friday that Prince Ranariddh, during a private meeting at his Phnom Penh residence last month, advised that Funcinpec officials refrain from blocking the return of Reastr Niyum and three other groups that split off before or after the factional fighting.
However, there is substantial opposition in Funcinpec to taking back their former colleagues, particularly from members of the police and army. They said any serious discussion at the congress of welcoming back the renegades would be premature.
“Most members of [Funcinpec’s] steering committee have expressed opposition to the return of the renegades to the party,” Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-minister of Defense and a Funcinpec steering committee member, said Saturday.
Prince Sirirath said that following debates of the issue at three meetings of the 45-member steering committee late last year, the committee sent a letter in mid-January to Prince Ranariddh requesting that any discussion of welcoming back Reastr Nyum be postponed. He added that its signatories included co-Interior Minister You Hockry, who presided over the meeting as dean of Funcinpec. Contacted by telephone, You Hockry would not confirm nor deny whether he signed the letter.
Funcinpec Secretary General Tol Lah confirmed Friday that a letter urging a delay in discussion of the topic was sent to Prince Ranariddh about six weeks ago.
For many Funcinpec supporters, the July 1997 executions of scores of the party’s military and police officials—though most occurred before Ung Huot assumed Prince Ranariddh’s posts—constitute reason enough to postpone serious debate of Reastr Niyum’s return.
“This isn’t the time to deal with the issue because the past is too fresh,” Khin Yean, a National Assembly lawmaker and former division commander of Funcinpec resistance forces, said by telephone last week.
“I’ve talked to people in other provinces….They also feel that [Reastr Niyum members and other renegade factions] are the reason Funcinpec is now weak, and the reason so many party members were killed [in 1997].”
Another steering committee member spoke disparagingly of the renegades, and said he had expressed his position against reunification by refusing to attend meetings where the issue was to be raised. “I hate them too much,” said the general, who asked not to be named.
In the country’s northwestern provinces, where fighting between the Funcinpec resistance and CPP forces was the most prolonged, party supporters may be even more opposed to any reunion, some party members said.
“As a Funcinpec member since 1987, I’m now living very close to people in Banteay Meanchey province,” Chun Bourm, a Funcinpec activist in the province, said Monday. “I know what people are feeling and what they are going to do in the future….Many Funcinpec members, including me, would join the Sam Rainsy Party if the renegades were welcomed into the party and we continued to be treated the way we are today.”
He added that Funcinpec members who lost relatives during the period have “not seen a single killer brought to justice.”
The most high-profile extrajudicial killing was of Interior Minister Secretary of State Ho Sok, who was arrested, taken to the ministry and shot in the office of a prominent CPP police general. Other prominent Funcinpec security officials killed were Funcinpec intelligence chief and RCAF general Chao Sambath, Deputy Chief of RCAF General Staff Ly Seng Hong, and Defense Ministry Undersecretary of State Krouch Yoeum.
In the months that followed, the CPP’s attempts to retain international legitimacy by installing Funcinpec renegades in key positions failed, as the UN withdrew its seat for the government, and key donors suspended aid. Prince Ranariddh and other Funcinpec officials with him in Bangkok labeled the actions of July and August 1997 a coup d’ etat.
One Asian diplomat pointed out Monday that if Funcinpec accepted back the former renegades, it would strengthen the CPP’s claims that no coup took place in 1997.
“The CPP could say, ‘see, it was no coup because those basically were representatives of Funcinpec in Phnom Penh after the fighting,’” he said. “They can say, politically, Ung Huot was still Funcinpec during that time.”
Meanwhile, Tol Lah indicated that he supported bringing Reastr Niyum members back.
“After the 1998 election, Funcinpec made a policy of welcoming all educated people,” Toh Lah said. “And that’s why there are so many young Funcinpec officials in the government.”
Monh Saphan, chairman of the National Assembly’s legislation commission and a Funcinpec steering committee member, expressed an openness to the renegades. “[Reastr Niyum members] defected only because of political suppression,” he said Friday. Likewise, Sam Kanitha, a Funcinpec senator, said Friday that she supports Reastr Niyum’s inclusion because “they had no way to walk out at the time [of the factional fighting], and their leader, Prince Ranariddh, was not in the country.”
She added that the splintering of the party seriously affected Funcinpec’s performance in the 1998 election: “After [the renegades’] defection, they created four parties, and their total ballots added up to eight seats. So, if they return, we will regain our seats as in the 1993 election.”
The three other parties that split from Funcinpec in 1997 are Sangkum Thmei, Cambodia New Life and National Union. Of those, Sangkum Thmei is probably the most important. It is led by former Funcinpec secretary general Loy Sim Chheang, who told the Phnom Penh Post he had no desire to rejoin Funcinpec.
”There would be internal conflict, of course,” said the Asian diplomat. “On the other hand, those opposed to the [return of Reastr Niyum] would gain nothing and lose considerable power by starting their own parties or joining the opposition….More than likely they would seek some sort of compensation.”
for approving the return of Reastr Niyum.”
The diplomat, speculating on the benefits Prince Ranariddh and his party might accrue from the return of Reastr Niyum, said: “Reastr Niyum lacks the numbers and resources to be of real benefit to Funcinpec. But welcoming its members back would give Ranariddh a chance to appear magnanimous. He would seem Buddhist and forgiving. And what else can he really do?”
If Reastr Niyum leader Ung Huot sought compensation for returning to the fold, “he would have a very weak bargaining position,” the diplomat added.
But some prominent Funcinpec members like Prince Sirirath maintain the group brings potential trouble.
“Why do we need them?” he said. “They weakened the party and broke it into small factions ….And we can’t teach and train them anymore as they are adult and educated people.”