CAMBODIA: Strongman, Terrible Man, and Politics of Power Sharing (1)

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

CAMBODIA: Strongman, Terrible Man, and Politics of Power Sharing (1)


Tin Maung Maung Than

In Cambodia 2003 was an election year in which the results of the ballot were apparently not accepted by those who lost the election. The incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen (the strongman), the opposition leader Sam Rainsy (the terrible man), and the National Assembly president Prince Ranariddh (the invisible man) could not agree upon a satisfactory power-sharing formula, with the latter two joining up in an attempt to deny the former of the country's premiership despite a convincing victory by Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples' Party (CPP) in the July election. The outcome was the dissolution of the ruling coalition, a hung (suspended) government, and an uncertain political climate that prevailed throughout the second half of the year.

The Political Scene Pre-Election Politics The year started rather inauspiciously with anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh in late January (see below), just two weeks after the start of the voter registration period for the July election. The edict issued by the Mohanikaya Buddhist Sect leader that urged monks to refrain from voting in the upcoming general election also resulted in expressions of unhappiness and concern amongst pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations during January. With political parties jostling to capitalize on the nationalistic fervour aroused by that unfortunate event involving Thailand, the gradual build-up of political tensions in the run-up to the general election was further aggravated. The murder of a senior monk on 6 February and the killing of Om Radsady, adviser to Prince Ranariddh, on 18 February further raised the political temperature despite government claims that the latter was the outcome of a botched robbery attempt. In the same month, the visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley, after meeting with the FUNCINPEC (National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Co-operative Cambodia) and SRP (Sam Rainsy Party) leaders, revealed that he had expressed to them his serious concerns about the rising level of intimidation and violence in the country and publicly urged the government to reverse the trend. Meanwhile, the National Assembly was virtually paralysed, weeks before going into recess on 25 February, by the boycott of the FUNCINPEC and SRP members of Parliament (MPs) to prevent voting on revoking the immunity of Princess Norodom Vacheara who was being sued by Hun Sen for defamation. These developments apparently caused King Sihanouk to delay his departure to Beijing (for a medical check-up) by a couple of weeks.

The voters registration exercise launched on 17 January by the National Election Committee (NEC) yielded some 6.34 million (5.4 million in 1998) registered voters. The registration rate of around 94 per cent (of all eligible persons) was below the NEC's target of 95 per cent as well as lower than the 98 per cent attained in the 1998 election but still quite impressive for a developing nation. 157 complaints were lodged during the one-month registration period and the NEC admitted that there were some problems in the exercise. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) stated that its monitoring at 400 registration centres found many instances of illegal restrictions and was "extremely concerned" about those irregularities, intimidations, and associated violence. Nevertheless, most observers felt that the NEC's performance was acceptable.2

In the ensuing campaigning period leading to the election, the ruling coalition partner FUNCINPEC and the SRP competed with each other while at the same time trying to loosen the CPP's grip on the rural voters. At times, the rivalry between those two parties appeared to be more intense than their challenge against the CPP. The all-too-familiar tactics of party-hopping by ambitious or disgruntled ranking members of the political parties manifested in February when the FUNCINPEC secretary of state at the Interior Ministry defected to the SRP. …

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