Hopes are dimming that the Japanese-brokered peace plan can bring about a lasting truce in the northwest unless concrete resolutions can be reached over how to reintegrate resistance forces into government ranks, analysts say.
Without an agreement, the government may find a legal basis on which to exclude deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh from the forthcoming polls, whether or not he receives a royal pardon exempting him from criminal convictions.
“Ranariddh can still come back, but he cannot participate in the elections if there is no cease-fire because of article 6 of the political parties law,” Prak Sokhonn, senior adviser to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Tuesday. Article 6 of the election-related law prohibits any political party from controlling autonomous regions of the country or maintaining a private militia.
On Feb 27, the prince called a unilateral cease-fire in response to a four-point Japanese plan that aims to pave the way for his return for the elections.
The government welcomed the prince’s cease-fire declaration but called for him to bring his soldiers back into the government fold, in accordance with the Japanese plan. Resistance commander General Nhiek Bun Chhay rejected the government’s subsequent terms, demanding further clarification on troop reintegration.
The original Japanese proposal suggested that resistance soldiers be reinstated in the original army ranks they held before July’s fighting.
Despite government endorsement of this plan, however, no official announcement has been made on how this could be achieved. Defense Ministry officials this week refused to comment on their plans for reintegration, and in particular for Nhiek Bun Chhay, the former RCAF deputy chief of general staff.
Part of the problem for Nhiek Bun Chhay is that despite his conviction along with the prince on charges of illegally purchasing and transporting weapons, no discussions have taken place on the issue of a pardon.
Prak Sokhonn suggested that Nhiek Bun Chhay could personally request a pardon from the King. “The government has given its guarantee about the safety of those reintegrated into the army. There is no reason for any fear. A lot of people have already come back,” he said.
The prince’s representative in Phnom Penh, May Sam Oeun, called for concrete guarantees that all resistance leaders, including top generals, would be accepted back without penalty.
“The four-point plan…concerns the reintegration of everyone,” he said. “We understood from what Hun Sen wrote to Kofi Annan that the amnesties would cover everyone.”
May Sam Oeun also disputed that it was up to Nhiek Bun Chhay to request an amnesty, noting that the King has the constitutional power to grant a unilateral pardon.
Without a pardon for the top general, analysts ask how military reintegration can succeed.
“The Japanese plan is the ideal, but there could be problems with the attitude of Nhiek Bun Chhay,” a Western diplomat said.
After his conviction on the arms charge, Nhiek Bun Chhay slammed the Japanese proposal for its failure to protect the resistance fighters, and said the plan was becoming meaningless.
Even if efforts to reintegrate the prince’s troops fail, May Sam Oeun claimed, the government cannot exclude Prince Ranariddh from the polls on the grounds that he controls his own army.
“We don’t have an army, we have RCAF soldiers that are loyal to the prince,” he said. “All the different political militia were integrated into the government army by Untac, and that situation is still the same.”
One legal expert said the vague phrasing of the clause left it wide open for political abuse. Furthermore, the expert said, if the government had wished to implement article 6, it should have already used the clause to block Funcinpec’s registration for the elections,
Meanwhile, the government is claiming to have done everything it can to ensure the prince can compete in the elections.
“The door is open, and the front and back windows too,” First Prime Minister Ung Huot asserted Wednesday. But he too admitted that no discussions had taken place on amnesties for any other of the key resistance figures.
“Nhiek Bun Chhay could be the victim in this,” one political analyst said Wednesday. “If the others, the common soldiers in the lower ranks are integrated, I don’t think the international community will fight for him.”
And if Nhiek Bun Chhay will not lay down his arms permanently, the prince’s chances of making it to the ballot box could be in jeopardy.
“The only solution for Ranariddh, if he wants to protect himself from article 6, is to say that he has no link with Nhiek Bun Chhay,” the analyst said.
But abandoning his top general, who has led the resistance battle in his name for the past eight months, might dent the prince’s political credibility, even if it allowed him to compete in the polls, Prak Sokhonn suggested.
“If he declared it officially then I think it would be accepted. But the prince would discredit himself if he said that. It would show that he has no control over his own forces,” Prak Sokhonn said.