Cambodia: Raw Politics and Royal Politics


Milton Osborne

Whatever the future may hold, Prime Minister Hun Sen is now even more entrenched as Cambodia's unchallenged political leader than he was previously. Standing firm with a determination not to compromise, Hun Sen successfully stared down Prince Ranariddh's efforts to carve out a more powerful role for himself and FUNCINPEC. In doing so Hun Sen clearly, and correctly, estimated that Ranariddh and his associates would ultimately prefer to settle for a subservient role in the coalition government formed in July rather than fight on issues of principle in tandem with the Sam Rainsy Party.

At the same time, and in circumstances that are still not entirely clear, Hun Sen has won an internal factional battle within the CPP that saw Chea Sim depart from Phnom Penh for Bangkok, supposedly for medical treatment. Knowledge of the inner workings of the CPP is limited, but there has been general agreement among outside observers that, until now, Chea Sim was the dominant figure in determining internal CPP affairs, while Hun Sen controlled the government. It is far too early to say with certainty that factional disagreements have now been removed from within the CPP, but for the moment Hun Sen appears to be unchallenged both at the party and at the government levels.

With FUNCINPEC having joined the CPP in coalition and with the main ministries being controlled by the latter, Sam Rainsy and his supporters are even more removed from any role in determining political developments than was the case previously. The support given to Rainsy by groups such as Amnesty International and a number of United States politicians has limited resonance in Cambodia itself.

Against this background, King Sihanouk's announced determination to abdicate initially appears a quaint sideshow to Cambodia's 'real' politics. Such a judgment needs considerable qualification. Living in self-exile, either in China or in North Korea, Sihanouk can do little to affect Cambodia's day-to-day politics, which he has repeatedly warned are in a state of crisis that could destroy the country's halting progress towards democracy. Nevertheless, it is clear that the question of who occupies the Cambodian throne remains important, no matter how limited the monarch's power might be. The prickly relationship that has existed between Sihanouk and Hun Sen over many years is a testimony to this fact. Whoever is king retains a degree of moral authority that cannot be ignored, and there is no doubt that a very large proportion of the Cambodian population, particularly in rural areas, remain in awe of the King.

With these facts in mind, it is fascinating to observe recent developments that appear to point to the eventual accession to the Cambodian throne of Prince Norodom Sihamoni, Sihanouk's son by his present Queen, Monineath (formerly Monique). Sihamoni (the name is a contraction from his father's and mother's names) has lived much of the past 37 years abroad, most recently as Cambodia's Ambassador to UNESCO. He is returning to Phnom Penh at a time when the rules determining how a new king is to be selected are set to be put before the National Assembly. Overseeing Sihamoni's succession to the throne is thought to be Sihanouk's last major political act. Ranariddh, has already endorsed his half-brother's candidacy to the throne and other possible contenders appear to have been neutralised by being granted new honorific titles.

It has long been known that Queen Monineath supported Sihamoni to be her husband's successor. In this regard, it is interesting to note that frequently heard Phnom Penh gossip has held the view that, whatever the differences between Sihanouk and Hun Sen, Monineath has succeeded in maintaining good relations with the prime minister. To the extent this is true, it reinforces the view that Sihamoni's succession is shaping as a 'done deal'.

In a development quite separate from issues of party politics and royal succession, the National Assembly on 31 August approved Cambodia's accession to the World Trade Organization a decision approved a week later by the Senate. Cambodia will become a full member after a thirty-day processing period.

WATCHPOINT: Will Sihanouk finally make good his repeatedly stated intention to abdicate? And will he then opt out of playing any further political role?


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