Two days of intense political maneuvering and reversals culminated late Saturday with King Norodom Sihanouk granting a full pardon to his son, deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
After initially refusing to grant the pardon on the grounds that it was not for him to decide, the King signed the decree following an appeal from Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The pardon appears to clear the way for the prince to return and participate in July’s scheduled elections, and puts back on track a Japanese-sponsored peace plan aimed at ensuring free and fair polls.
The royal decree granting the pardon was signed by the King in Beijing and faxed late Saturday night to Hun Sen’s cabinet in Phnom Penh. Under terms of the pardon, Prince Ranariddh is granted amnesty from the two criminal convictions handed down this month by the Phnom Penh Military Court.
The court sentenced the prince to a total of 35 years in prison after convicting him of plotting a coup with the outlawed Khmer Rouge and of illegally buying and transporting weapons. Additionally, the prince was ordered to pay more than $56 million in compensation for damage incurred during last July’s bloody street battles.
The royal pardon, originally requested by the prince’s elder sister, Princess Boppha Devi, not only wipes out the prison sentences, but also frees the prince from the need to pay the multi-million dollar compensation package.
“I order a complete pardon to be given to Prince Norodom Ranariddh who was condemned by the power of the March 4 and 18 verdicts of the Military Court of Cambodia,” the King wrote in the decree.
The decree ordered the Council of Ministers, Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry to implement the pardon immediately.
The signing of the decree was preceded by a flurry of correspondence between Phnom Penh and Beijing. It began with a letter Friday night from the two prime ministers telling the monarch the decision on the pardon was up to him.
The letter warned, however, that a pardon risked being “meaningless” if the prince first failed to recognize the court’s verdict.
Consistent with earlier warnings that he would only sign a pardon if specifically requested to by both premiers, the King refused to make a decision on the matter.
To do so, the King said in a statement released Saturday, would put the whole future of the monarchy in jeopardy.
After hearing of the King’s refusal, Hun Sen wrote again Saturday to the monarch, calling for a complete and unconditional pardon for the prince.
“Today…after talking with Acting Head of State Chea Sim, I wish to request you to please issue a decree to completely pardon all sentences…and compensation against Prince Norodom Ranariddh, to free him from the verdict of the court,” Hun Sen wrote.
The second prime minister noted he had been accused of trying to block the prince’s return.
“I believe that only such a request can show that no-one in Cambodia is intending to put obstacles in the way of Prince Ranariddh’s return and participation in the elections,” Hun Sen wrote.
The letter was not signed by First Prime Minister Ung Huot, who is in Thailand until early this week.
According to a report by Agence France-Presse, the King was so surprised by the missive that he wrote in the margin: “The terms of this letter are so unbelievable and incredible that I cannot certify its authenticity.”
After receiving assurances that the request was genuine, the King signed the decree granting the pardon, according to senior Hun Sen adviser Prak Sokhonn.
Analysts, diplomats and politicians were scrambling Sunday to catch up with the bewildering process, which saw hopes of the peace plan apparently dashed, then revived again by Hun Sen’s rapid appeal.
“The principle of elections is safe,” said one diplomat. “No-one can say today that elections cannot be held because of the Ranariddh issue.”
Others agreed. “It’s up to the prince to return now,” one Asean diplomat said. The opportunity is there now. The question is whether or not he will choose to take it.”
By Sunday evening, the prince himself had made no response to the pardon. A senior aide said Sunday that the prince remained “cautious” about the political climate here, AFP reported from Bangkok.
“We feel confident that the King’s decision can play an important role in bringing peace through national reconciliation in Cambodia,” the cabinet spokesman said.
Said opposition ally Sam Rainsy, “The latest developments clearly show that when democrats around the world stick together, they can force any dictator to back off.”
The prince will meet with his top aides in Bangkok on Monday to decide Funcinpec’s strategy, including the date of his possible return to Cambodia, the official said.
Despite the apparent revival of the peace plan, several observers cautioned Sunday that the political crisis was still far from resolved.
One CPP insider on Sunday warned against early optimism for the opposition.
“This doesn’t mean the path is all clear for Ranariddh because they will prepare other traps,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
One possible pitfall for the prince could be the issue of reintegrating the prince’s resistance forces into the government army, given the lack of pardons for top resistance commanders Serey Kosal and Nhiek Bun Chhay, also sentenced to heavy prison terms.
According to the CPP member, Hun Sen’s apparent change of mind was not unilateral.
“Hun Sen changed his mind because of discussions he had with other [party] forces,” he said. “Hun Sen doesn’t want [Prince Ranariddh] to come back, but at this moment the pressure to proceed along this path is too much.”
Other observers suggested that discussions Saturday afternoon with Chea Sim were likely crucial in shifting Hun Sen’s stance.
“The two conferred on Saturday afternoon and Hun Sen agreed to send the letter,” Chea Sim adviser Oum Sarith said Sunday.
But one political analyst disagreed that Hun Sen’s moves amounted to a change of mind, saying the second prime minister could never have asked directly for a pardon without first making clear that he believed in the prince’s guilt.
“He couldn’t appear not to take the court’s decision seriously,” the analyst said.
“In his mind, he is right, but he doesn’t want the elections not to happen. Hun Sen has shown he can be very pragmatic, even if he goes against his conscience because something more essential is at stake.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Decherd and Kimsan Chantara)