When news leaked last year that Funcinpec would honor its members who were killed during the 1997 factional fighting, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Cambodia’s stability could be threatened if the royalists resurrected the bloody events that took place on July 5 and July 6 five years earlier.
Funcinpec at first acquiesced, but then exhibited a rare moment of defiance and held the commemoration ceremony five days later.
When the royalists finally gathered on the grounds of Wat Chambok Meas in Kandal province on July 11, 2002, more than 2,000 people turned out to take part in the largest commemoration ceremony since 1997.
Contrary to Hun Sen’s fears, the Funcinpec ceremony did not affect stability in Cambodia. But instability has since crept into the CPP’s coalition with Funcinpec as the July 27 elections loom.
Testimony to the widening gulf between Funcinpec and the CPP, several thousand royalist supporters will mark the sixth anniversary of the 1997 fighting on Saturday at the same pagoda, with Buddhist monks leading prayers for the dead and Prince Norodom Ranariddh delivering election campaign messages for the living.
“[Prince Ranariddh] will tell around 10,000 people about the Funcinpec members who died and were killed during the 1980s resistance and during the factional fighting in 1997,” Funcinpec Deputy Secretary-General Chhim Seak Leng said on Thursday.
“We do not want to keep reminding of the past, but it is an annual ceremony for the dead,” Chhim Seak Leng said.
Other Funcinpec officials also stressed that Saturday’s ceremony is not an attempt to stir emotions, re-ignite memories of 1997 or cause instability.
“What we are doing is not creating a problem. We are just holding a ceremony for the Funcinpec members who died or were killed,” Funcinpec Deputy Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay said earlier this week.
“We are not worried about this ceremony. Other people hold ceremonies for their dead relatives. So why not for us? It is Khmer tradition to hold a ceremony for the dead,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
Verbal assaults between the CPP and Funcinpec have already erupted over the July 1997 fighting. Angered over royalist claims that Hun Sen was to blame for the fighting, the CPP last month ordered all major TV stations to simulcast a CPP-made documentary of its version of events in 1997.
CPP spokesman and Information Ministry Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith said on Thursday the CPP has been driven to exasperation by Funcinpec continually resurrecting 1997.
The prince’s actions were contrary to an agreement the CPP and Funcinpec made in 1998 to “forget the past” when both parties formed the current government.
“You are not a gentleman, you cannot keep your word. How can you be prime minister?” said Khieu Kanharith, adding that the prince has lowered the reputation of the royal family.
Information Ministry officials will be monitoring the speeches broadcast from the Funcinpec ceremony on Saturday to determine if the CPP will react and reopen investigation into incidents from that period, Khieu Kanharith said.
“If they want to start, the police have to investigate,” Khieu Kanharith said. Among the incidents that could be investigated, he said, would be a killing in Nhiek Bun Chhay’s military camp, the death of a Phnom Penh hotel owner and the disappearance that year of a large quantity of heroin from the Interior Ministry.
Funcinpec may be trying to cause tension before the election so it can have an excuse after the vote to explain why the party did so badly, Khieu Kanharith said.
“We don’t want to destabilize the situation,” he said of the CPP.