‘Royalist Democrats’ Attempt to Rebound from Fall
For Funcinpec campaign manager May Sam Oeun, Cambodians have a clear decision to make next month.
“You will make a choice between the communists and the liberal democrats,” he said. “You make a choice for prime minister between a prince and a communist.”
The statements neatly sum up the campaign strategy for Funcinpec, the party that has fallen far in the last few years, from victory in the 1993 elections to forced power-sharing with the CPP to last year’s ouster of Funcinpec’s president, Prince Norodom Ranariddh as first premier.
The comeback strategy rests on two pillars.
For those interested in issues, the party has a nine-page policy statement outlining Funcinpec’s reform plans under the slogan “Peaceful and Prosperous Cambodia.” Policy proposals include enforcing forestry laws, establishing a transparent tax collection system, introducing a value-added tax, allocating 15 percent of the budget to education (now it is less than 5 percent) and establishing English as the official second language taught in schools.
For simpler folk, especially those in the countryside, Funcinpec offers Prince Ranariddh, son of widely revered King Norodom Sihanouk, as its candidate for prime minister.
“Funcinpec is the party of the King,” Prince Ranariddh reminded supporters Thursday in his campaign kickoff speech. “Funcinpec is the party of the monarchy.”
May Sam Oeun admits that the party trades heavily on its association with the revered monarch and royal family.
“I think this is not a flaw,” he said. “Monarchy is the culture of the Cambodian people. Monarchy equals stability. Monarchy means peace. Monarchy means national reconciliation.”
After all, the party itself was formed by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1981 when he was still a prince in exile protesting against the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh. Prince Ranariddh assumed the presidency of Funcinpec in 1992.
The royal connection is seen as one reason that Funcinpec won the most votes in the 1993 UN-sponsored elections. Some analysts say that then-Prince Sihanouk’s longtime association with Funcinpec, added to Prince Ranariddh’s physical resemblance to his father, led many in the countryside to believe they were voting for Sihanouk, whose 1955-70 government is still remembered as an era of peace and prosperity.
Ly Thuch, a top aide to the prince, recently summed up the party’s appeal:
“If you talk to the monks they will tell you the country was given to the King by the gods, so that’s why when the King’s family runs the country, everything is in place. The country has enough water and everything is good in the fields to produce food for the people,” he said. “When the royal family does not rule you have war and famine like we have seen.”
Yet, May Sam Oeun insists the party’s royalist philosophy does not contradict its platform of democratic values and reform.
He waved the Funcinpec policy statement. “If you vote for this you will have liberal democratic government for which you can enjoy freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of choice.”
“If you do not vote for this, you vote not for liberal democracy but for the communist regime,” he said, referring to the formerly communist CPP, which ran a Vietnamese-backed government until 1991. “We still don’t believe that regime has changed,” May Sam Oeun said.
The 1993 election win was high point for Funcinpec. The win was a surprise to many—including, apparently, the CPP. But the Funcinpec victory was tempered by Prince Ranariddh’s agreement under heavy pressure from his father to form a coalition government with the CPP’s Hun Sen as second prime minister.
The coalition hit the rocks in early 1996 when Prince Ranariddh began to push for more Funcinpec power at the district and commune level, which was dominated by the CPP. Soon, the two prime ministers were openly feuding and competing for the loyalty of the Khmer Rouge soldiers that were by then beginning to defect. Funcinpec further alienated the CPP when it formed a pre-election alliance, the National United Front, aimed at freezing CPP out of the next administration.
The feud came to a head July 5 last year, when CPP-loyal RCAF forces marched on a Funcinpec base in Phnom Penh, touching off two days of fierce fighting in the capital. The fighting ended with Funcinpec troops on the run and Prince Ranariddh, who was out of the country at the time, was effectively ousted as first premier.
With the prince in exile, the party split into several factions, each claiming to be the real Funcinpec.
May Sam Oeun admits the party was decimated by what he calls Hun Sen’s coup d’etat. But he dismissed the loss of such key leaders such as 1993 campaign manager Ung Huot, the foreign minister who replaced Prince Ranariddh as first premier, former party secretary-general Loy Sim Chheang and another 1993 campaign mastermind, Council of Ministers co-minister Nady Tan. All remained in Cambodia after the July 5-6, 1997 fighting rather than join the exodus of more than 20 members of parliament. Most have now formed or joined new parties.
“Our rank and file are still solid. Only some of the top membership have left,” May Sam Oeun said. “When the prince returned March 30, our structure just blossomed again.”
However, there have long been grumblings that Prince Ranariddh’s leadership style was too regal.
Before his ouster, there were complaints of high-handed behavior by those who said he listened to only his few cronies instead of the party’s steering committee. The party dismissed them as fabricated by those bent on splitting Funcinpec.
However Cambodia analyst Steven Heder, no fan of the CPP, has a less-than-flattering view of how Funcinpec behaved when in power.
“Ranariddh was happy to be part of a regime that was increasing authoritarian and corrupt as long as Funcinpec got its fair share of the power and money,” Heder recently told the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific.
May Sam Oeun dismissed critics who say that Funcinpec achieved little in its time in government. He blamed CPP resistance to change as blocking reform, and said that a truly Funcinpec government would be able to do more. As to reports that Funcinpec officials were just as corrupt, if not more, than the CPP ones, May Sam Oeun indicated the problem was limited to only a few bad apples.
“You have some people being corrupt and you have to condemn that. But our politicial party is not a corrupt political party,” he said. “The communist political party is the most corrupt because the leaders only have wine and music to dance to and the people have nothing.”
Prince Ranariddh returned from exile March 30 under an internationally brokered deal to allow him to contest next month’s elections. Despite the disarray the party seemed in at that time, May Sam Oeun said the rebuilding process was going well. Most of the equipment lost when party headquarters was looted after the fighting has been replaced. And, he reiterated, grass roots support in the countryside is still strong.
If people feel they can vote freely on July 26, May Sam Oeun predicts Funcinpec will win a two-thirds majority in parliament, based on royalist popularity and the people’s anger with the current rulers.
“It’s very clear to the voters and the people that the absence of Funcinpec for 10 months coincided with difficulty, instability, and increase of crime and uncertainty,” he said.
“The people are waiting for July 26,” he said. “I call July 26 the Day of Judgment for the CPP—and for Funcinpec too.”
He said the people have been intensely responsive to the prince’s public speeches, appearing to instinctively look to a royal—a democratic royal—to deliver change and a better society.
“People come from hundreds of kilometers just to see the King,” May Sam Oeun said. “I mean,” he amended quickly, “the prince.”