For detractors in Funcinpec, they are the “traitors” who remained behind in July 1997, working with a CPP-dominated government that murdered scores of their colleagues, while helping legitimize what Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh termed a “coup d’etat.”
But top officials of Reastr Niyum, who distanced themselves from Prince Ranariddh’s leadership after royalist forces were routed by CPP loyalists on July 5-6, 1997, are now telling a different story—one of tough decisions made in a “confusing” and “life-threatening” situation.
As Funcinpec moves toward a March 19-21 congress, and mulls the prospect of welcoming back the breakaway party, key members of Reastr Niyum say they are ending a long silence to respond to critics in Funcinpec who last week labeled the group as traitors and renegades.
“I get so irritated when people call us traitors,” Nady Tan, current Council of Ministers secretary general and Reastr Niyum co-vice president, said in a telephone interview Sunday. “After July 5-6 [former Funcinpec secretary-general and current Sangkum Thmei Party leader] Loy Sim Chheang and I made an appeal to save the party’s life ….Some of those who call us traitors were living abroad at the time, eating in fancy restaurants, staying in luxury hotels, spending time with their girlfriends.”
Reastr Niyum Secretary-General Pou Sothirak, once the Funcinpec industry minister, also struck out Sunday at opponents of a reunion who he claims were, in the weeks following the 1997 factional fighting, “busy in Bangkok, doing I don’t know what.”
Few observers would deny the fighting shook the capital almost three years ago imposed extreme pressures upon Funcinpec officials, particularly police and army officers. Scores of party members fled the country, including then-commerce secretary of state Lu Laysreng, minister of tourism Veng Sereyvuth, minister of rural development Hong Sun Huot, and prominent royalist general Khann Savoeun. Others, notably interior ministry secretary of state Ho Sok and RCAF intelligence general Chao Sambath, were executed without trial by men under the command of CPP loyalists, UN human rights investigators concluded.
Yet, the decision of a handful of Funcinpec officials to remain in the CPP-dominated government, and to form party policy through a truncated 10-member steering committee, remains enveloped in controversy. Many Funcinpec loyalists fled overseas to survive but also to signal displeasure with the strong-armed tactics of the CPP-controlled government, and they noted that the renegades gave tacit approval to the violence by remaining and collaborating with Hun Sen supporters.
Funcinpec member Huot Pongly, a National Assembly member and former adviser to Prince Ranariddh, said Sunday: “[Some of those killed] after the July fighting were my friends. Most [Funcinpec] members who saw friends and relatives killed cannot be satisfied with renegades.”
Opponents of a reunion are particularly hard on Ung Huot, former Funcinpec foreign minister and current Reastr Niyum president, who agreed to take the Funcinpec slot as first prime minister in place of Prince Ranariddh in late July 1997—at the urging of the CPP, which was attempting to prove that ousting of the prince was not a coup d’etat.
But Reastr Niyum officials say their decisions—far from being “treasonous” or expanding the scale of killings, as critics claim—positioned the former Funcinpec officials to protect royalist security officers and party supporters who remained behind and who were likely to be targeted by CPP-loyal troops.
“Loy Sim Chheang, as Funcinpec secretary general and acting president of the National Assembly, personally appealed to then Acting Head of State Chea Sim to protect the thousands of security officers, lawmakers and supporters who were unable to flee the country,” Nady Tan said. “And as dean of Funcinpec, I appealed directly to Samdech Hun Sen, who intervened very effectively [to protect the lives of Funcinpec officials and lawmakers].”
According to Nady Tan, beneficiaries of this intervention included co-Interior Minister You Hockry; Yeng Marady, a top National Police general; then Kandal provincial Governor Chak Sarik; and Ky Lum Ang, a National Assembly lawmaker representing Battambang province.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-Defense Minister and a member of Funcinpec’s steering committee, acknowledged Sunday the group might have believed it was acting in Funcinpec’s interest in July 1997. But he insisted that charges of disloyalty are reinforced by the group’s establishment of Reastr Niyum in February 1998.
“[Co-Interior Minister] You Hockry and [Interior Ministry Secretary of State] Kieng Vang also stayed here and helped many people,” Prince Sirirath said. “But they always remained loyal to Prince Ranariddh and refused when others tried to persuade them to join other parties….[If Reastr Niyum returned], a truly cooperative and friendly climate would not be possible, even though they are our friends.”
Reastr Niyum leaders say they are “stunned” by the reactions of Funcinpec officials they describe as “old friends.” And last week, Nady Tan commented bitterly on Prince Sirirath’s opposition to a reunion: “In regards to the word traitor, there is a Cambodian proverb that being a traitor is a matter of family. If the father is a traitor, the son is a traitor. Well, my family members have …always loyally served the monarchy. And Prince Sisowath Sirirath should understand that.”
Nady Tan was apparently eluding to the events of 1970, when Prince Sirirath’s father, the late Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, played a role in the coup d’etat that toppled then Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
Moreover, Nady Tan asserted it was Prince Ranariddh himself who “gave us the green light” to establish Reastr Niyum. He added that among the pressures to set up a separate party were the absence of the prince, the uncertain prospects of his return and a government provision “forbidding parties with standing armies and autonomous zones to participate in the election.”
“As dean of Funcinpec, I submitted on February 1, 1998, a recommendation to [Prince Ranariddh] to set up a new party,” Nady Tan said. “The recommendation was sent through Lu Laysreng, and one week later, he delivered a reply [from Prince Ranariddh] granting approval to set up a new party as ‘a spare tire.’ We registered [for the election] at the last minute, literally two hours before the deadline.”
Lu Laysreng was unavailable to confirm or deny the recommendation. And sources close to Prince Ranariddh declined to comment.
But a longtime Western observer, who had the opportunity to discuss the political situation with four future Reastr Niyum officials a couple weeks after the July 1997 factional fighting, called this claim “unlikely.”
“I think this is an attempt by [Reastr Niyum] to grease the chute, in terms of their reacceptance by Funcinpec,” the Western observer said. “Although I think these guys believed they were risking their lives in staying behind and certainly deserve some credit, I also know they viewed Ranariddh as an obstacle to starting a new party. From their comments [at the time], it was clear they felt they didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a green light from Ranariddh.”
The Western observer suggested Prince Ranariddh might go along with this version of events in order to facilitate Reastr Niyum’s return to Funcinpec.
Likewise, an Asian diplomat said Reastr Niyum’s account seems like a “justification” and differs dramatically from those of experts who watched events unfold between July 1997 and June1998. “It seems obvious that in setting up a separate party later on, [Reastr Niyum was] acting in the interest of the CPP, not of Funcinpec.”
He noted that the CPP was attempting to use legal justification to prevent Prince Ranariddh from returning to compete in the 1998 elections and if the international community had failed to force a deal to bring the prince back, Reastr Niyum members believed they—running under the Funcinpec banner—likely would have become the CPP’s coalition partner in the new government.
Despite the debate, the issue of Reastr Niyum’s integrity seems of marginal importance to many local analysts, who frame Reastr Niyum’s eventual return to Funcinpec as “one more step toward national reconciliation.”
“I feel that because of the special circumstances of July 1997, [Reastr Niyum members] were under pressure to survive somehow,” Chea Vannath, president of the Social Development Center, said Saturday. “Perhaps they misjudged the situation….But if I were [Prince Ranariddh], I would take them back, and for practical reasons, not political ones.”
She cited King Sihanouk’s call for reconciliation among political factions in 1954, after the country’s independence from French colonial rule, and more recent efforts to reintegrate former Khmer Rouge members. “If the Khmer Rouge can be welcomed back, these men certainly can be,” Chea Vannath said.