Cambodia: A Solution At Last?

1998

Milton Osborne

After months of uncertainty, an agreement between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh, brokered by King Sihanouk in early November, gives some hope that Cambodia may be able to move forward from the period of uncertainty that followed the July elections. Those elections had resulted in Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) winning a majority of seats in the National Assembly but failing to gain the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution in order to form government. At the same time, Hun Sen's opponents, Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy, claimed that the conduct of the elections was flawed and were refusing to accept the results or to enter into a coalition with Hun Sen.

September was marked by sizeable protest rallies in Phnom Penh, with Ranariddh's and Sam Rainsy's supporters disputing the fairness of the election results. After briefly tolerating these protests, Hun Sen unleashed his supporters who violently dispersed the protesters. Then, at the time of the formal convening of the National Assembly in Siemreap, in late September, there was a grenade attack which Hun Sen claimed was directed against him. Blaming his political opponents, he spoke of his readiness to act against them. Both Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy took Hun Sen's word seriously and hurriedly fled into Thailand.

In leaving as they did, Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy effectively conceded de facto control to Hun Sen, who continued to govern as the only functioning power in the country. A realisation of this fact, coupled with the intervention of the king, finally led to Ranariddh's returning to strike a deal with Hun Sen. This leaves Hun Sen as unchallenged Prime Minister, while Ranariddh has agreed to occupy the position of President of the National Assembly. Members of Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC party will be given some cabinet positions in the government that Hun Sen leads, including one of the two deputy prime ministerships, but key ministries will remain firmly in CPP hands.

While Sam Rainsy has decided to return to Cambodia, it is questionable whether he, in fact, has any real expectation of exercising any form of executive power. His privately expressed wish to become 'Cambodia's Aung San Suu Kyi' may be a pointer to his wish to act as a moral conscience for Cambodia.

So, after months of constitutional uncertainty, Hun Sen has succeeded in forming a coalition that will enable him to claim he governs with the consent of the people and the parliament. This achieved, he will hope that a combination of self-interests and 'compassion fatigue' will lead to Cambodia's being accepted back into the ranks of the international community. Probably sooner rather than later, ASEAN will accept Cambodia's membership and Hun Sen's representatives will be able to fill the vacant Cambodian seat at the United Nations. The extent to which foreign governments will be ready to provide the economic aid Cambodia so urgently needs is, for the moment, an open question, as concern will continue about human rights violations.

Ranariddh's acknowledgment of Hun Sen's dominant position is a clear recognition of where power lies in Cambodia. Indeed, short of some dramatic and currently unpredictable development, it is proper to conclude that in the political arena Hun Sen has won game, set and match.

WATCHPOINT: A serious, or violent, challenge to Hun Sen's dominant position no longer seems likely.

 

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