An article in King Norodom Sihanouk’s monthly bulletin criticizing the government for its provincial approach to a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders on Monday drew both praise for the monarch and disdain for the royalist Funcinpec party.
In a statement penned in Paris, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy cheered the King for arguing that Cambodia’s independence would not be eroded by UN involvement in the trial.
In stark contrast to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recurring call for a local trial, the King wrote: “Other sovereign nations have accepted and [continue to] accept an international tribunal….This does not violate the sovereignty of these countries.”
At constant issue in negotiations over assembling the trial has been whether the UN or Cambodian government would appoint the majority of judges. US officials, however, recently met with Hun Sen to narrow the gap between the two sides, proposing a “super-majority” that would require more than a majority of votes to reach a verdict.
Reiterating the opposition’s support for a UN-dominated trial, Sam Rainsy also criticized Funcinpec for its apparent inability to take a stand, despite Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s past support of an internationally credible trial.
“I would like to appeal to the Funcinpec party to show consistency about their position on the Khmer Rouge trial,” Sam Rainsy’s statement read. “They won votes from the Cambodian people. “They should stop blindly supporting Hun Sen’s arrogant opposition to a UN-led tribunal.”
Prince Ranariddh said on Monday he had little response to the allegations, noting he would neither dispute the King nor the government.
The party’s secretary-general, Tol Lah, would not comment on the charges until he had read the statement. But co-Minister of Interior You Hockry stressed that Funcinpec has no choice but to be silent in its new role as coalition government partner.
He cautioned that any disagreement between Funcinpec and Hun Sen’s CPP could lead to renewed political violence.
“We cannot disrupt the coalition just over the Khmer Rouge trial,” You Hockry said. “All we can say is that we respect the King and the statements he makes.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith and a close adviser to Hun Sen, Om Yentieng, declined to comment on the King’s statement.
Flap over Sam Rainsy’s statement did not stop with the Funcinpec allegations. The Royal Palace was quick on Sunday to release a statement softening the King’s stance and faulting Sam Rainsy for putting words in his mouth by using the word “condemn” to characterize the King’s reaction to the government.
“The King condemned the Hun Sen government’s insistence that a UN-led trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders would violate the country’s sovereignty,” Sam Rainsy’s statement said.
One CPP staffer, however, said regardless of the palace’s apparent retraction, the damage already was done. Sam Rainsy’s cabinet chief agreed. “The King opposed the government, whether he used the word ‘condemn’ or not,“ said Phi Thach.
Despite the King’s apolitical role as the country’s constitutional monarch since 1993, political diplomats agreed that the latest statement is evidence that King Sihanouk cannot stay completely away from politics.
One Asian diplomat suggested the King’s comments, while they appear to put pressure on the government, could also be part of a larger government strategy to compromise in the end.
“Using the King to take the middle ground, to be the voice of the people, this has worked for the government before,” he said, referring to deals made during the formation of the coalition government.
Another Asian diplomat said the King will never distance himself from his decades-long history of appeasement, when he controlled government in the 1960s and tried to stay neutral during the Khmer Rouge and then Vietnamese regimes of the 1970s and 1980s.
The King’s monthly bulletin is the “one political arena … for a man who is politics through and through,” he said.
Also this week, the Students’ Movement for Democracy lauded the King for his “intentions.”
“We strongly cannot accept a Cambodian court to try Khmer Rouge leaders, because this court is not standard enough to fulfill this matter, and above all this court is not independent,” the group said in a statement.
Their sentiments echo those of international and local human rights groups, who claim Cambodia’s legal system could not provide an impartial trial of Pol Pot’s former comrades without heavy UN involvement.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)