Dressed in a casual short-sleeved shirt and khakis and professing an affinity for Mahatma Gandhi, Prince Sisowath Thomico, special secretary to retired King Norodom Sihanouk, doesn’t look the part of a royalist or an outspoken political commentator.
But in defending the legacy of the Cambodian monarchy, he at times takes on hues of both.
During a wide-ranging conversation at the palace last week, the prince suggested that the deal to swap land adjoining the Royal Palace to Phanimex Co Ltd was only the latest twist in the decades long rivalry between the legacies of retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum movement and political factions backed by Vietnam, whose legacy today he said is represented by the CPP.
Prince Thomico argued that the notion of dueling legacies could be used to explain and understand much of Cambodia’s recent history, including the factional fighting between CPP and Funcinpec forces in 1997.
“What happened in 1997 was…not only a matter of men, not only a matter of rivalry between Samdech Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh,” he claimed. “It was a rivalry between those two legacies.”
But Prince Thomico suggested that Funcinpec since 1997 has increasingly abandoned its own traditions and history, the recent palace land swap being only a symptom of a long decline.
“Since 1998, since the second coalition, and now since 2004, little by little the legacy of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea is taking over the legacy of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum-just because the Funcinpec is not aware of its own legacy,” he claimed.
“What happened to the ground of the Royal Palace is a clear example of the conflict of these two legacies, the one coming from Sangkum Reastr Niyum, represented and supposedly defended by the Funcinpec, and the second one, the legacies from the People’s Republic of [Kampuchea], which is represented and defended by the CPP,” the prince said.
By way of example, he cited how Vietnamese forces in 1979 commandeered the former headquarters of the Palace’s Royal Guard as a place to store ammunition.
That land was later passed on to the Ministry of Interior, and on July 6 the land was swapped based on an approval letter from the Council of Ministers.
Because Funcinpec has abandoned its roots, Prince Thomico argued, and because the CPP embraces the royal legacy only when it is politically expedient, the burden of upholding that legacy has fallen to retired King Norodom Sihanouk and “to some degree people like me.”
“And now [the retired king is] the only one who defends that legacy, that heritage, because the Funcinpec, which is supposed to come from the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, to descend from the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, has given up its own heritage, its own legacy,” he added.
There remains nostalgia amongst many people for “the golden era of Cambodia” which Prince Thomico said was represented by the Sangkum regime and which he suggested proposed an alternative vision of what Cambodia could be.
But being an exponent of that vision may have brought Prince Thomico’s already into conflict with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The prime minister in a June speech warned a “Sisowath royalist” and “would-be rebels” to “prepare coffins and say their wills to their wives” because he would ”smash the whole nest” if they attempted to use the contentious issue of Cambodia’s borders with its neighbors to foment unrest. Observers speculated that Prince Thomico was the “Sisowath royalist.” “The political forces represented by Sam Rainsy do not pose a threat. [The prime minister] can control them,” Prince Thomico claimed. “But people like me, who come from the past, who have a very bright legacy, a very rich legacy,” are not easily controlled.
“When King Sihanouk became president of the Supreme Council on Border Affairs…there was somehow hope given to the people,” he said. “And at that time, the powers in Cambodia …appeared to be shaken.”
The prince denied that he left the country because he felt threatened, saying he departed to be with the retired King in Beijing, and then went to France to spend time with his family.
“I’m not involved in any political party. I do not have any army. I don’t even have bodyguards. I’m just an individual who from time to time writes articles, papers—who expresses himself,” he said.
“’m deeply, deeply nonviolent,” Prince Thomico said. “But I have the right to express myself.”
And, he said, he has a right to express his criticism of the ruling coalition government, which he alleged was “illegal” because of the 2004 constitutional amendment that paved the way for its formation. “The whole process leading to this amendment was unlawful, so the result is necessarily unlawful.”
Prince Thomico explained that the amendment to the Constitution was not legal because a Royal Decree approving it was allegedly signed without then King Norodom Sihanouk’s permission.
When the King initially declined to sign the decree, the task was then left to Senate President Chea Sim, who left unexpectedly for Bangkok without leaving any instruction on whether to sign the document, Prince Thomico said.
Nhiek Bun Chhay, now deputy prime minister and co-minister of defense but at the time second deputy president of the Senate, signed the decree a few hours after Chea Sim’s surprise departure.
According to the prince, Nhiek Bun Chhay wrote under his signature “under the high instruction of King Sihanouk.”
“I think that King Sihanouk never gave any instruction to Nhiek Bun Chhay to sign the Royal Decree,” the prince said. “It means that this signature is unlawful. Just because of the mention [of the King’s instruction] it is an illegal document, and the whole government, the coalition, rely on the signature of that decree.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay said Sunday that he was obliged to sign the decree and that, in the end, he had acted in the best interests of Cambodia.
“It is in the middle,” he said of the legality of his signing the decree. “According to the Constitution I became the interim head of state, so I had to sign it.”
“I became head of state, so I had the right to sign it,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “But [there is] one thing, I did not send a letter to the King asking for [authority to sign] because I was interim head of state automatically.”
“The situation at the time obligated me to do it because the government had been deadlocked for a long time, I had to break it,” he explained of his decision to sign the decree. Nhiek Bun Chhay did not comment on whether Funcinpec had abandoned its royal legacy.
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen, said Nhiek Bun Chhay’s signature was legal because the King approved the coalition government. “Later on the King signed [a decree] allowing the formation of the government,” he said.
He also denied that there was anything untoward about the palace land swap. “The ministry legally requested the exchange,” he said. “The issue has some problems, but I don’t think we should make them bigger than they are.”
Asked whether he was concerned his comments might cause a stir, Prince Thomico said: “There’s nothing I should be scared of….I have nothing to hide.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath and Pin Sisovann)