By Thet Sambath
Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh on Tuesday surprised many royalists when he said his party needs a change of leadership, with a new secretary- general and deputy secretary- general.
The announcement, made on the opening day of Funcinpec’s annual congress, has led to speculation that the once-exiled Prince Norodom Sirivudh will again hold the party’s No 2 post.
Three high-ranking Funcinpec members said Prince Sirivudh is the choice to replace Education Minister Tol Lah, who has been secretary-general since Prince Sirivudh went into exile in December 1995.
Prince Ranariddh also said the party needs to recruit and retain members who can increase Funcinpec’s grassroots support, strengthening the royalist power base in the provinces, which traditionally have been under the ruling CPP’s control.
Khem Sokha, a Funcinpec deputy secretary-general, said members were shocked by Prince Ranariddh’s announcement about the need to change party leadership.
“We are very surprised, but very happy because this will strengthen the party and help it compete in the elections,” Khem Sokha said.
Prince Sirivudh has remained out of politics since returning to Cambodia in January 1999 after almost three years in exile.
In 1996, he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for plotting to assassinate then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen but was later amnestied by his half-brother, King Norodom Sihanouk.
Earlier this month, Prince Ranariddh announced Prince Sirivudh had asked to stand as Funcinpec’s National Assembly candidate for Kandal province in the 2003 general elections. Prince Sirivudh was very much a part of the congress Tuesday, participating in ceremonial activities with other Funcinpec leaders.
He sat behind Prince Ranariddh and next to Princess Bopha Devi, his niece and a member of the Funcinpec steering committee. When Prince Ranariddh and other party leaders bowed to a statue of King Norodom Sihanouk, founder of Funcinpec, Prince Sirivudh was with him.
Senator Nhiek Bhun Chhay, former commander of the resistance forces that fled Cambodia after the 1997 factional fighting, is the only other Funcinpec official who may possibly be tapped for secretary-general. But Funcinpec officials say Nhiek Bhun Chhay doesn’t want the post because he is not a politician like Prince Sirivudh. Instead, he will take a deputy secretary general’s position, effectively acting as the third highest-ranking official.
Some party members have speculated that Prince Sirivudh would bring a measure of strength not seen in Funcinpec in recent years.
The combination of Prince Sirivudh and Nhiek Bhun Chhay as Funcinpec’s most senior officers would mean a return of strongmen who have been forced to lead more quiet lives since their return to Cambodia.
Tol Lah would not confirm he was stepping down as secretary general, saying only that he would resign if he could not fulfill his duties to the full extent. “It’s like when you are on a football team and there is someone not strong enough, so you ask that person to sit down for awhile so someone else can take over,” he said Monday. “The main point is, you want your team to win. If I’m tired, somebody else will do it.”
But he noted that party members usually fight not to have responsibility or hold power.
“We never quarrel among ourselves for power because people refuse to accept big roles in the party,” Tol Lah said. “That has become the tradition in our party.”
Although no decisions on top party roles will be made until after the congress, Prince Ranariddh said he hopes his comments about restructuring party leadership will encourage other party members to talk about the issue, senior Funcinpec officials said.