Depending on who is speaking, last month’s reshuffle of Funcinpec government officials was either the latest in a series of moves to strengthen the party’s lineup ahead of upcoming elections or a way to punish allegedly corrupt officials who have put their own interests ahead of the party.
Last month, the party replaced governors and deputy governors in Kep municipality and Kampot, Sihanoukville, Oddar Meanchey, Kratie, Koh Kong and Ratanakkiri provinces. On Aug 21, the National Assembly met in an extraordinary session to approve new Funcinpec-appointed ministers of Justice and Rural Development and a CPP-appointed minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Funcinpec’s newly appointed secretary-general, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, acknowledged that some party members have been unhappy with the recent changes. But he said the changes were a necessary step in a party reorganization and revitalization that began when Prince Norodom Ranariddh named him to the second-in-command position in July.
At the party’s annual congress in March, Funcinpec members agreed to a resolution that supported guiding principles and recommendations made by Prince Ranariddh to appoint a new secretary-general and other party leaders.
Prince Ranariddh said he wanted someone who could work full-time organizing and boosting a party that many political experts have described as complacent and declining in influence since the 1997 factional fighting destroyed its infrastructure.
These days, Prince Sirivudh said, the two men talk an average of once a day about party strategy.
“Our contact is permanent now, very permanent,” he said.
The appointment of Prince Sirivudh, who is the half-brother of King Norodom Sihanouk, climaxed a remarkable political turnaround. Prince Sirivudh was convicted in absentia to 10 years in prison in 1996 for plotting to assassinate then second prime minister Hun Sen after a Khmer language newspaper reported an alleged conversation in which he described an assassination plot. He spent three years in exile before returning to Cambodia in 1999 after receiving an amnesty from King Sihanouk.
He said his new job is “not to destabilize anybody,” but to improve the party’s machinery and strategy.
“People understand that there’s a lot of potential in this party. But we need to be more organized,” Prince Sirivudh said in an interview at Funcinpec headquarters. “Moving people is not about corruption. It is because the party thinks that people are not in the right place. It is normal around the world for a political party, in order to realize its potential, to move people from place to place.”
Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay, one of the party’s deputy secretary-generals and the Funcinpec military commander during the 1997 factional fighting, said it has been the party’s policy to shift its provincial government officials every three years.
“We’re reforming the party,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “We‘re trying to increase people’s confidence in us in order to compete in the commune elections and the 2003 national election.”
One high-ranking party official, who asked for anonymity, said Funcinpec has wanted to change some of its top government officials since late 2000.
“They did not work for the party,” the official said of those who were removed. “Some were thought to be corrupt. They were just satisfied to use their position to make money for themselves.”
Serei Kosal, former Battambang provincial governor and now a party deputy secretary-general, said no more changes of Funcinpec officials are expected, “unless it is very necessary.”
Prince Ranariddh has denied reports that he was bribed to accept a cabinet reshuffle. But one political analyst said “there is always the possibility of some economic transactions” when new appointments to government posts take place.
“It could open up the opportunity for lots of things, including ‘donations to the party,’” the analyst said. “This happens in other countries. It increases the chances for someone to get a post.”
Meanwhile, Nhiek Bun Chhay said the party has already seen evidence that it has become more popular since Prince Sirivudh’s appointment.
The party has welcomed some new members “from other parties” and has talked to some top officials from other parties who “still think Funcinpec is one of the possible alternatives” to the CPP and could switch to Funcinpec, Prince Sirivudh said.
But he said his work these days is focused only on rejuvenating the party. That started last month with a clean-up and beautification of Funcinpec’s compound. Now, he said, party members and top officials will feel more welcome coming to the headquarters for strategy meetings.
The second phase is building up the party’s membership and presence in the provinces, he said.
Last week, 70 party members completed a 15-day training course on observing the election and understanding the commune council election law. Those officials will now go to every province to teach lower-level party members what they have learned.
Prince Sirivudh hopes to soon begin traveling outside Phnom Penh for party boosting and recruitment, starting in remote areas like Pailin and Stung Treng province. He will remind voters that Funcinpec differs from CPP in its royal roots and its respect for human rights and a free democratic system, he said.
“We want to encourage people not to feel afraid and isolated from the party leadership,” he said.
While Prince Sirivudh’s association with the royal family will help in his party work, “a party is not just a one-man show,” said the political analyst. Success at the grassroots level probably can’t be gauged until after next February’s elections, he said.
Nhiek Bun Chhay said he expects success in the commune council elections because, unlike during the 1998 national elections, the party will have inspectors at each voting center and will deal with a National Election Committee that he said is more neutral and less-biased toward the ruling CPP.