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Not a bad year after all for Cambodia

By Verghese Mathews - posted Friday, 13 January 2006

This has not been a good year at all for the Opposition Sam Rainsy Party though it has turned out to be much better than expected for the dominant Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and its coalition partner in government, the royalist Funcinpec, headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Meanwhile, newly crowned King Norodom Sihamoni manifested a regal decorum and a quiet charm that quickly endeared him especially to the common folk - "the little people," as his father, ex-King Sihanouk, was wont to fondly refer to them.

Hun Sen, Ranariddh and Rainsy have, over the years, all played centre stage with varying degrees of success and failure. In the process they have raised debilitating politicking and disruptive one-upmanship into a fine art.


Notwithstanding this, there has been a gradual maturing of the political styles in the past year. Old-fashioned politicians who were rewarded for past services are being slowly replaced by more educated and competent young politicians and technocrats, who are able to address complex challenges and relate equally well to the increasing numbers of potentially troublesome unemployed youths moving to the cities and towns.

This evolving change in the political party scene has gone largely unnoticed as all focus has been on the main players. Not surprisingly, despite the infusion of new blood, the infighting, factionalism and one-upmanship of Cambodian politics continue.

Looking back on 2005, King Sihamoni has undoubtedly emerged as the best-loved figure, with Hun Sen clearly the strongest of the leaders, while Ranariddh has surprised his detractors as a deft survivor and a practical politician.

Rainsy is indisputably the main loser. This was sealed on December 22 when a Cambodian court found him guilty on two counts of criminal defamation and sentenced him in absentia to 18 months in prison for remarks he made against Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Rainsy, who has been in self-exile in Paris following the removal of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution in February, refused to attend the trial.

He was alleged to have accused Hun Sen of being involved in a 1997 grenade attack on an Opposition rally that resulted in 19 deaths. He was also alleged to have accused Ranariddh of having accepted substantial bribes from the CPP as an inducement for Funcinpec to join government.

Rainsy has termed the judicial decision as farcical and repeated his allegation that the Cambodian courts were not independent. The US State Department expressed concern at what it termed was the continuing deterioration of democratic principles, such as free speech.


Likewise, Rainsy's friends overseas, including human rights organisations, have come out in his support but back home where the votes count, his glamour has gone and his party is steadily losing credibility.

Some suggest that while Rainsy's extended stay outside the country had given unprecedented elbow room for other aspirants in his tightly-run party, no clear alternative leader has emerged. With the latest court ruling, Rainsy will continue to remain outside with limited options. Some supporters have suggested a party-in-exile leading to a government-in-exile.

Meanwhile, Rainsy has quickly called for pardon from the king, an act which will return him to public life in Phnom Penh. Already his friends and supporters especially the anti-Hun Sen Cambodian diaspora in the US and France are picking up this call and flooding Internet newsgroups with similar demands to the king.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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