A senior Funcinpec official said Tuesday that the royalist party’s permanent committee was attempting to end its two-decade partnership with the ruling CPP in order to openly support the opposition CNRP but was being stymied by a small group headed by former Defense Minister Nhiek Bun Chhay.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, the former vice president of Funcinpec who remains on its permanent committee, said the party’s official position was to not openly support the CPP.
“We made a decision a long time ago, when we were removed from power, that if we had less than 10 members in the National Assembly we would no longer be in a partnership with the CPP, but it is the position of Nhiek Bun Chhay to continue to join the partnership with the CPP,” the prince said.
“Now we have zero seats in the parliament but we are still their partner,” he said. “We are the only party in Cambodia that was created by the late king, His Majesty King Sihanouk, so the CPP does not want to let us go.
“Our members are secretaries of state and undersecretaries of state in the government, so we stay as their partner, a voiceless partner who cannot say anything or voice opinions,” he added.
Prince Sirirath said most other members of the committee also wished to come out in support of the CNRP but were waiting for the right time to start to push against Mr. Bun Chhay, the party’s secretary-general.
Mr. Bun Chhay, who is also an adviser to the CPP government with the rank of deputy prime minister, rose to prominence in the 1990s as the senior-most military general loyal to First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Mr. Bun Chhay said Tuesday that Funcinpec’s permanent committee had never discussed switching support from the CPP to the CNRP.
“There has been no such thing,” he said. “If there had been this case, there would be discussion in the permanent committee. In the past we have never had this. All the leaders [of Funcinpec] have no stance to cooperate with the CNRP.”
Mr. Bun Chhay said he would be powerless to stop Prince Sirirath from switching Funcinpec’s allegiance to the CNRP if the prince was truly in the majority.
“Even if I oppose it, if the permanent committee wants to cooperate [with the CNRP] they will cooperate. Myself and only two or three people cannot oppose this,” he said. “But there has never been a case when we have discussed this.”
Mr. Bun Chhay said he believed Funcinpec would continue to support the CPP indefinitely.
“The Funcinpec party is royalist, therefore we support the king and the royalist regime. The ones who recreated the royalist regime in 1993 was the Funcinpec party and the CPP,” he said. “Since then, we have cooperated with each other.”
Prince Sirirath, who served as Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.N. in the 1990s, said Funcinpec leadership had in fact already attempted to join with the opposition after the 2008 election, in which the royalists won only two assembly seats, but were convinced not to by Mr. Bun Chhay.
“Funcinpec at that time was already approaching the Sam Rainsy Party to find a way to be in a better political position. But then fearing that we would no longer be a partner of the CPP, the CPP offered for us to return to the partnership,” the prince said.
“Nhiek Bun Chhay wanted us to be in the coalition so he could become a deputy prime minister,” he added. “It was shameful, I repeat, shameful that we joined with the CPP.”
At the time, Keo Puth Rasmey, who was then president of Funcinpec, joined the opposition in rejecting the results of the 2008 national election, which the CPP swept.
In response, then-CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said there was “a Funcinpec one and two” and that the CPP would only continue with the one led by Mr. Bun Chhay, who soon replaced Mr. Puth Rasmey as de facto leader.
Neither Princess Norodom Arunrasmey, Funcinpec’s current president, nor Mr. Puth Rasmey, her husband, could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a founding Funcinpec member who defected to the CNRP months before last year’s national election, said Prince Sirirath’s account of the internal divisions within the royalist party was correct.
“Within the Funcinpec, the people who want to remain with the CPP are the minority, but they hold the power,” he said. “In my experience within the CNRP, the ground-level people of the Funcinpec have already joined the CNRP.
“Most of their commune chiefs came from the Funcinpec and the CNRP is composed mainly of former Funcinpec members,” the prince said.
“The reason the Funcinpec lost its support from its grass roots is because they failed to understand the feelings of its grass roots, who are quite anti-CPP.”
Alongside CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh, Prince Sirirath and Prince Thomico were some of the founding members of the Funcinpec movement formed by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Paris in March 1981 to resist the regime installed in Phnom Penh by the invading Vietnamese.
The resistance changed itself into a party to take part in the U.N.-organized May 1993 elections, which it won, forming an awkward coalition with the CPP that has survived multiple strains, including the July 1997 ouster of Prince Ranariddh by armed forces loyal to then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In the 1998 national election, Funcinpec lost its majority of seats and has since served as the junior coalition partner to the CPP. In the 2008 national election, it won only two seats, both of which it lost in 2013.
The CNRP meanwhile won 55 of the Assembly’s 123 seats in last year’s election.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Tuesday the government was not concerned about losing Funcinpec’s support. He said that the royalist party’s few remaining secretaries and undersecretaries of state were serving as apolitical public servants.
“We are no longer in a coalition government in principle. The CPP rules the government, but the CPP offers an opportunity to Funcinpec members to join together with the CPP to help Cambodia and develop the country,” he said.
Mr. Rainsy, who became opposition leader in the mid-1990s when he left Funcinpec, said the CNRP would welcome any member of the party who wished to join.
“We welcome everybody, any Cambodian who shares the same vision as us and who wants to contribute to our mission, as we define, of rescuing the country,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“I do not make any judgments about Funcinpec as an organization,” he said. “Right now they are doing different things and we do not know what will happen.”
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