Funcinpec officials expressed concern Tuesday at last week’s launch of a club for former royalist resistance fighters, claiming the organization was not sanctioned by Prince Norodom Ranariddh and could cause serious tension ahead of next year’s general election.
Former Funcinpec military commander Nhiek Bun Chhay was elected on Thursday as president of the Club of Nationalist Resistance by a meeting of 149 former resistance fighters and politicians at a restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Though Nhiek Bun Chhay said the club’s aims are to raise financial assistance for poverty-stricken former resistance fighters and their families, Funcinpec officials said the organization has provoked a further split in the royalist party.
“All the leaders of Funcinpec did not know about this club,” said Serey Kosal, security adviser to Prince Ranariddh.
“I do not protest about this club. But I think everybody in the party…must ask permission and get a decision from the prince,” he said. “If somebody does not respect [the process], that is not good for the party.”
Serey Kosal said Prince Ranariddh was informed about the club’s formation but was not asked for permission.
He also accused unnamed officials of taking advantage of resistance fighters for their personal benefit, adding that former Funcinpec military chiefs Khan Savoeun and Lay Virak had not joined the new club, indicating that former resistance leaders have split into groups.
Nhiek Bun Chhay and Lay Virak could not be contacted for comment. Khan Savoeun is currently traveling abroad.
“It can show the resistance is broken in many parts…I don’t like this,” Serey Kosal said. “It is too late to create this new club…we must create before when we came back to Cambodia [in 1998]. Now it is too late.”
Recently returned from France, co-Minister of Defense and Funcinpec member Prince Sisowath Sirirath said he had not been informed of the formation of the club.
He expressed concern that the club’s stated humanitarian objectives would be misunderstood ahead of next year’s elections.
“It should be made understood to people, especially the party leadership and the ruling authorities…. Please go out and explain [the club’s aim],” Prince Sirirath said.
“The election is coming up and some people might use this as a political weapon…. This is a sensitive issue,” he said.
Prince Sirirath also said the party leadership should have been better briefed in order to avert further rumors of splits in the party.
“That’s one of the reasons why it should be explained that it is a humanitarian group and not involved in politics,” he said.
Second Deputy Senate President and one-time commander of resistance forces Nhiek Bun Chhay is considered one of the most popular members of the royalist party.
He commands a solid following in the northwest, where in the 1980s he led royalist resistance troops against the Hanoi-backed government in Phnom Penh.
However, former resistance members in the northwest have long criticized Funcinpec officials who they say called them to fight in 1997, but abandoned them to poverty in 1998 when the royalists joined a coalition government with Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.
Nhiek Bun Chhay did not visit the northwest during the build up to February’s commune elections, cementing claims by former resistance commanders that they do not feel free to travel in the region and are actively discouraged from meeting their former troops.
Funcinpec’s crushing loss in the commune elections was followed by weeks of bitter infighting and party soul searching amid claims the party had lost popularity because of its weakness since beginning its collaboration with Hun Sen’s party.
Funcinpec Interior Ministry Secretary of State Kieng Vang—who was elected with Kandal Governor Tep Nonnary, also a Funcinpec member, as club vice-presidents—said on Tuesday the new organization will work to restore faith in the party.
“This club’s only mission is to re-strengthen the spirit and morality of Funcinpec and help the resistance soldiers and supporters long abandoned by the party,” Kieng Vang said.
It was essential to encourage them to stay with Funcinpec ahead of the election, Kieng Vang said.
“Frankly speaking, it is our technique for the election to strengthen the [party] force,” he said.
According to Kieng Vang, Funcinpec Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh gave his support for the club and also relayed Prince Ranariddh’s support on Tuesday.
Kieng Vang blasted Funcinpec members who criticized the club, saying that party had allowed clubs for royalist governors, secretaries of state, and co-Interior Minister You Hockry set up a club for royalist police officers..
Tep Nonnary said the club was not aimed at provoking a political split with the CPP, but was a club, like any other type of club.
“If we are resistance, we have to know our original identity. We are coalition partners, but it doesn’t mean we are not competitive,” Tep Nonnary said.
Funcinpec Spokesman Kol Pheng could not confirm if Prince Ranariddh was aware of plans to form the club.
Kol Pheng said he was not told about the club’s launch.
An application to establish the club on a legal basis has not yet been lodged with the Interior Ministry, ministry spokesman police general Sok Phal said on Tuesday.
A long-time resistance fighter and member of Funcinpec who didn’t want to be named said the club is likely to cause some consternation for the royalists ahead of the election.
“That there is some worry about that is reasonable. I think the prince does not like any problems before the election in 2003. Mostly, he does not want to give some threat to the CPP,” he said.
Asked if he was invited to join the club, he said: “Before doing something I have to think carefully about the consequences.”