Though open to merging the country’s two royalist parties under Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Funcinpec leaders said yesterday that the prince’s proposed name for the new party was a nonstarter.
After taking the helm of the rechristened Norodom Ranariddh Party on Saturday and ending a two-year hiatus from politics, the prince suggested uniting the NRP and Funcinpec to form Funcinpec 81.
But Funcinpec’s secretary-general, Nhiek Bun Chhay, immediately rejected the idea.
“We would consider the prince’s proposal to merge if he agrees to keep Funcinpec’s name,” he said. “But we would not consider creating a new Funcinpec 81 at all, and maybe not merge if the prince demands the change…. It’s a huge obstacle that Funcinpec cannot accept.”
Though technically just a number, its history weighs heavily on the country’s nationalists. It harks back to 1981, the year then-Prince and former King Norodom Sihanouk—Prince Ranariddh’s father—founded Funcinpec as a royalist resistance movement to the Vietnamese-backed government that followed the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge.
With Prince Ranariddh at its head, the front turned itself into a proper political party in 1992 and won national elections the next year, sweeping the prince into the prime minister’s office.
“We have to create a new royalist party called Funcinpec 81,” the prince said Saturday. “Why [keep] Funcinpec? I like Funcinpec because my political birth came from Funcinpec.”
But Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, sees a less flattering reason.
He said the prince may be trying to erase the public’s memory of 2006, when Funcinpec voted him out for allegedly selling the party’s headquarters and using the $3.6 million to buy himself some land. In 2007, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted the prince in absentia on a related breach of trust charge and sentenced him to an 18-month jail term. Prince Ranariddh returned to Cambodia the next year after securing a pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.
That same year, the NRP, an eponymously named party he founded upon leaving Funcinpec, and renamed the Nationalist Party until switching back last weekend, won only two seats in the National Assembly. Minus Prince Ranariddh, Funcinpec also won only two seats that year.
“It is not a good image for Prince Ranariddh to come back to Funcinpec…so he must have some compromise. He needs something new. I think that’s his strategy,” Mr Panha said.
The prince himself hinted as much on Saturday when he called on all royalists to “forget the event in 2006,” calling his ouster a “coup.”
But Funcinpec’s Mr Bun Chhay denied the charge yesterday, insisting that the prince simply walked away from the party when it made a move to set its house in order.
“Because of the corrupt family relationship in the party, Funcinpec held a congress to reform its platform in 2006,” he said, voting in a new president and giving the prince an honorary lifetime role. “We were not wrong, and we did not steal Funcinpec. The prince walked out of the party and created a new party.”
Though nominally still open to the idea of a merger, Mr Bun Chhay said he could not accept the prince’s proposed name for the new party because the political alliance his party had penned with the ruling CPP was with Funcinpec, not Funcinpec 81.
Prince Ranariddh’s Cabinet chief, Noranariddh Anandiyat, called that a mere excuse.
“Actually, he does not have any commitment to merge the parties,” he said yesterday.
And as for any future party’s name, he said the prince was just as determined to add “81” as Funcinpec was to keep it off.
“It is the only one and the last opportunity,” Mr Anandiyat said. “The prince still wants to merge all royalists to be one, to be Funcinpec 81.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter and Neou Vannarin)