Cambodia Since April 1975

VI. The Royal Government

On September 24, 1993, the new Constitution was promulgated and the Kingdom of Cambodia was established with Norodom Sihanouk as King. Under the provisions of the new constitution he was to reign, but not to hold political power. Prince Norodom Ranariddh of FUNCINPEC and Hun Sen of the CPP were named Co-Prime-Ministers. The role of UNTAC was formally ended on schedule.

The division of provincial level authority was finally decided in December 1993. Similar to the arrangement of ministerial portfolios, every governor would have a vice-governor from the other party. The provinces were split between the CPP and FUNCINPEC. It was agreed that elections would be held at the local level in the future. In reality none of the PRK/SOC structures were to change over the next nine years at the provincial level or below. In rural areas where 85-90 percent of the population lives no changes in personnel were visible in their communities.

At the highest levels of the new government a relative period of calm followed as ministers and vice-ministers settled into their new positions. The military forces of the coalition partners were merged, and the Ministries of Defense and Interior both had Co-Ministers from FUNCINPEC and CPP.

FUNCINPEC’s problems from the outset were in part of their own making. They had been a resistance movement of armed fighters, not a political organization. They found themselves with a drastic shortage of trained personnel for government postings. A second problem quickly emerged when it became clear that some FUNCINPEC officials had jumped on the corruption bandwagon. Businessmen complained that whereas before they had to pay off officials of one party, now it was necessary to pay off two.

Over the next two years, the "opposition" parties, now supposedly "partners" in a coalition, were to splinter and divide, with new offshoots of these divisions joining the CPP in an ever more monolithic system. As David Chandler pointed out in 1996, " To all intents and purposes, Cambodia reverted to the one-party rule that had characterized it since 1955" (Chandler 1996:241). Since Chandler’s comments in 1996, this process has proceeded apace, culminating in the expulsion of Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC from the government in a violent coup d’etat in July of 1997 (see below).

As for the CPP, there was only one occasion on which it appeared that fissures within the party would erupt publicly. This was the July 2, 1994 aborted coup attempt which seemed focused on attacking both FUNCINPEC and Hun Sen. While Prince Norodom Chakropong and Ministry of Interior Officials Sin Song (the supposed organizers of the eastern province secession movement after the election) and Sin Sen were charged and convicted as the organizers of the attempt, speculation was rampant that others in the CPP leadership had also been involved.

But most of the political breakdown between 1994 and 1996 was to the advantage of the CPP, as they watched and facilitated the demise of what Cambodian publications still referred to as "the opposition." In October 1994, the outspoken FUNCINPEC Minister of Finance, Sam Rainsy, was fired. He was admired by external donors for his revamping of financial policies, but as an outspoken opponent of corruption he made enemies across party lines. The FUNCINPEC Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norodom Sirivuth resigned in protest at Sam Rainsy’s ouster. In December 1995, Sirivuth was arrested and accused of plotting to assassinate Hun Sen. He was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and exiled from the country. By agreeing to these changes Ranariddh cooperated in the destruction of two of his most important allies.

In June of 1995, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party split into two factions, that of the founder Son Sann, and a splinter group lead by Minister of Information Ieng Mouly. Ieng Mouly immediately received Hun Sen’s backing in his bid for BLDP leadership. When Son Sann tried to hold a party congress in October 1995, grenades were thrown into the crowd assembling for the meeting, resulting in many injuries, but no deaths.

Also in October, Sam Rainsy announced the formation of a new political party, the Khmer Nation Party (KNP). In February 1996, only five months later, a KNP lieutenant named Nuon Soeur broke away and declared an alternative KNP. He was also accorded immediate support from the CPP. External CPP support to factions within the opposition parties played on internal conflicts to wreak havoc within.

At the April 1996 FUNCINPEC party congress Rannaridh attacked the coalition with CPP, arguing that FUNCINPEC had no real power and demanding an equal share of power at the district level. Sam Rainsy supported Rannaridh’s stand, raising the possibility that the former FUNCINPEC allies might reunite. A time of serious political tension followed, with coup rumors, troop movements and talk of intervention by the king.

The next split was to come within the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. Since the election, the Royal government had been attacking Khmer Rouge positions, including the strong holds of Pailin and Anlong Veng. While they had had some success, they were unable to hold their gains. During the period of tension between the two Prime Ministers in 1996, FUNCINPEC was actively negotiating with Khmer Rouge forces in Pailin. In August, Ieng Sary, the former DK foreign minister, defected to the government, bringing with him not only a large portion of the Khmer Rouge troops, but also the gem and timber-rich areas around Pailin that were the financial backbone of the movement. In a controversial move Ieng Sary was given amnesty and his forces were merged with the Royal army. Both Hun Sen and Ranariddh actively courted Ieng Sary and his newly founded Democratic National Unity Movement (DNUM). Both saw the new forces as a potential trump card in their ongoing competition with the other.

In February 1997, a new political alliance was formed between FUNCINPEC, Sam Rainsy’s Khmer Nation and Son Sann’s BLDP Party called the National United Front. Sam Rainsy’s party had gained in strength the previous year, when he supported the formation of labor unions in the nation’s garment factories. Then in March a group of FUNCINPEC negotiators was captured and killed by Khmer Rouge hard-liners at Anlong Veng. Clearly FUNCINPEC had been trying to negotiate an alliance that included the hard-line Khmer Rouge against the CPP. At this crucial juncture, King Norodom Sihanouk began discussing abdication. Hun Sen reacted angrily to these events, threatening to scrap local and national elections planned for 1997 and 1998. He also proposed a Constitutional amendment prohibiting members of the royal family from participating in politics.

On March 30th, a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh led by Sam Rainsy was attacked with four grenades. At least 15 people died in the attack and more than 100 people in the crowd were injured. Sam Rainsy barely escaped alive. It was immediately alleged that soldiers from Hun Sen’s personal guard had facilitated the escape of the attackers by preventing bystanders from pursuing them. Hun Sen for his part condemned the perpetrators, but then went on to say that the organizers of the rally were to blame (Phnom Penh Post, April 4-17, 1997:1). Nothing was ever done to bring anyone to justice for this attack.

Within the next month, there was another split within FUNCINPEC, as several members of the National Assembly formally broke off from Ranariddh. With these new defectors as allies, the CPP nearly succeeded in securing the needed two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to form a government on its own. Tensions escalated dramatically thereafter as both Prime Ministers increased the numbers and armaments of their personal "bodyguard" units. The coalition government by this time had virtually ceased to function, and the National Assembly was unable to meet.

During May and June, both FUNCINPEC and the CPP were negotiating with the Khmer Rouge hard-liners in Anlong Veng. Both saw an alliance with the Khmer Rouge as a possible deciding factor in their struggle with the other. These negotiations triggered a further split within the Khmer Rouge forces. The power struggle was apparently won by Ta Mok, who announced that Pol Pot had been "captured." Pol Pot was accused of executing the former Khmer Rouge defense minister Son Sen and his family, apparently under the suspicion that they had been in contact with CPP negotiators. Rannaridh and Hun Sen together announced that a deal has been made to turn over Pol Pot, but the deal collapsed. On the night of June 17, FUNCINPEC and CPP bodyguard units clashed for 90 minutes in the streets of Phnom Penh.

The buildup of tension finally exploded with two days of fierce fighting July 5 and 6, 1997. FUNCINPEC had successfully concluded negotiations with the Khmer Rouge, but the planned announcement of their alliance was preempted. Instead, on the morning of July 5th, CPP forces surrounded and tried to enter and disarm the FUNCINPEC military headquarters outside the capital. When FUNCINPEC military officials refused, fighting ensued.

Ranariddh, who had fled the country the night before, was accused and eventually convicted in abstentia of conducting illegal negotiations with the Khmer Rouge, illegally importing weapons, and secretly moving armed forces into the city that included Khmer Rouge troops. The government proclaimed it had defeated "anarchical forces," and denied that there had been a coup. While the government’s version of events state that Ranariddh’s forces "attacked" the city, eyewitness accounts by journalists and others (including this author), recorded coordinated CPP attacks on the FUNCINPEC base, on party offices and the homes of FUNCINPEC military leaders. The fighting ended on the night of July 6th. For the next two days CPP soldiers looted the areas of the city where fighting had taken place.

A report issued by the United Nations Center for Human Rights documented the execution of some 40 FUNCINPEC officials and military personnel in the days following the coup. A subsequent report listed another 50 persons who were dead or missing (United Nations 1997).

Many FUNCINPEC and BLDP officials fled the country in the hours following the fighting. FUNCINPEC military forces in the northwest of the country, and their commanders who had survived the fighting in Phnom Penh, withdrew to the Thai border town of O’Smach. Other FUNCINPEC officials stayed and joined the group that had splintered from Rannaridh’s FUNCINPEC three months before. Ung Huot, the former FUNCINPEC Minister of Foreign Affairs was named the new Co-Prime Minister and Hun Sen declared that the government was unchanged.

The international community, however, viewed matters differently--at least initially. Cambodia was denied admission to ASEAN, and most Southeast Asian nations evacuated their nationals from the country. Bilateral aid programs were temporarily suspended. In September, the IMF and the World Bank announced the suspension of aid, and the United Nations voted to leave Cambodia’s seat empty. Tourism dropped dramatically and new investment ground to a halt as everyone waited out the upheaval.

But from an international perspective, the choices were limited. No one, it seemed, was willing to commit to funding a renewed round of warfare by backing the FUNCINPEC militarily from the Thai border. The primary goal of both Western nations and ASEAN in the year after the coup was to ensure that national elections were held on schedule in 1998. Japanese diplomatic efforts resulted in a compromise whereby Rannaridh was found guilty of "raising armed forces against the government and colluding with the Khmer Rouge," but was then immediately pardoned by his father the King--with Hun Sen’s permission. This set the stage for his return to participate in the elections in 1998.

The other fallout of the coup has been the final disintegration of the Khmer Rouge. To prove to the world that they had in fact dumped Pol Pot from the leadership, the Khmer Rouge staged a bizarre "show trial" in July 1997 to which they invited a Western reporter and his cameraman. The surreal footage of the weakened old man being shouted at by a crowd of mostly women and children was shown around the world, but no one leapt to embrace the newly "democratic" movement. After he was found guilty, not of his crimes during the Khmer Rouge regime, but of the murders of Son Sen and his family, Pol Pot was sentenced to house arrest.

During the spring of 1998, the Hun Sen government was successful in their own negotiations with Khmer Rouge commanders that again fractured the movement. Government soldiers were able to take and hold the Khmer Rouge base at Anlong Veng. The remaining Khmer Rouge hard-liners retreated towards the Thai border. It was in these mountains that Pol Pot died on April 15, apparently of heart failure. By December 1998, the two remaining central figures of the DK regime that remained at large, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea had also defected to the government. They were publicly welcomed by Hun Sen, who said that it was time to "dig a hole and bury the past." Ta Mok was arrested and is still being held in a prison in Phnom Penh awaiting possible trial on charges of genocide.

The issue of whether or not to hold a trial of some kind the surviving leaders of the DK period is still up in the air at the time of this writing (early 2002). Hun Sen rejected the United Nations appeal for an international tribunal, arguing that such a tribunal would violate Cambodia’s sovereignty as well as raise the specter of renewed civil war. Donor countries, most importantly the United States, continued to apply pressure, and after nearly two years of protracted negotiations between the government and UN legal experts, a draft law on a tribunal passed the National Assembly and was signed in to law by King Norodom Sihanouk in 2001. The tribunal proposed is a hybrid mixture of Cambodian and international judges and prosecutors. Problems still remain however, the law as passed failed to address certain issues raised by the UN, including prior immunity given to Ieng Sary, and the incorporation of certain international standards aimed at ensuring fairness (for an extended discussion of the negotiation process, see Heder 2002).

Under intense pressure, from the international community and active intervention of King Norodom Sihanouk, the elections were held in July of 1998. In the run-up to the elections there were repeated allegations of voter intimidation and political violence by CPP against the opposition parties. Such tactics were similar to those the 1993 election: forcing people to join the CPP, forcing people to take oaths that they would vote for the party, verbal threats, shooting at party signs, tearing down party materials, and in some cases physical violence. The UN Center for Human Rights investigated a dozen political murders in the weeks before the elections. The opposition parties were also restricted in their access to electronic media.

The election itself proceeded with remarkably little violence. One Khmer Rouge attack near their former stronghold at Anlong Veng resulted in ten deaths. More than 5 million voters registered, estimated to be over 90 percent of the eligible populace. Of these, some 90 percent of the registered voters turned out to vote on election day. Of the thirty-nine parties that stood in the elections, voters overwhelmingly turned to only three, Hun Sen’s CPP, FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy’s Party.

The CPP won 64 seats in the 122 member parliament, with 41.2 percent of the vote, FUNCINPEC won 43 seats with 31.5 percent, and the Sam Rainsy Party with 14.2 percent of the vote will have 15 seats. FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy party both claimed large-scale election irregularities, and intially refused to discuss the formation of a coalition until their allegations could be investigated. The foreign observers who monitored Cambodia’s election, however, declared that it was "fair enough to reflect the broad will of the people." The 500 foreign observers covered less than 10 percent of the polling sites, but local observers, including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), who did cover the majority of sites, said that their observations did not confirm allegations of widespread abuses.

FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy Party organized public protests to demand investigations of voting irregularities. These protests were broken up with hundreds of riot police who violently dispersed the crowds. In the aftermath 18 bodies were found disposed of around the outskirts of the city. The negotiations between the parties dragged on into the fall. Since a two-thirds majority is required in the National Assembly to form a government, the formation of a new coalition was forced on the parties.

It was not until November 13 that the announcement was made of a coalition government formed between FUNCINPEC and CPP. Hun Sen was the Prime Minister, and the CPP retained control over five crucial ministries: Defense, Interior, Justice, Finance, and Foreign Affairs. Prince Ranariddh became the Chairman of the National Assembly, and CPP President Chea Sim was made the head of a new royally appointed Senate. Amnesties were given to a number of people, allowing for their return to Cambodia, including Norodom Sirivudh, Norodom Chakrapong, and a number of FUNCINPEC military officers. Norodom Sirivudh returned to Cambodia, and in 2001 became the Secretary General of FUNCINPEC.

The coalition is nearly completely dominated by Hun Sen’s CPP. For the many foreign governments concerned with the election, including the European Union, Japan, the United States, and the neighboring ASEAN countries, this outcome will be welcomed since Hun Sen is widely viewed as the only person capable of bringing stability to the country.

Cambodia joined ASEAN in April 1999, completing the dream of an "ASEAN 10." The government was reseated at the United Nations and World Bank and IMF funding were restored. Bilateral assistance was also reinstated, though donor countries remain frustrated with the slow rate of reform on certain issues including government reform and corruption. In 2001 the Cambodian Consultative Group pledged $615 million in assistance for the coming year, a figure higher than the Cambodian government had requested. US government also announced in 2001 the resumption of direct bilateral aid to the Cambodian government.

There has been a transformation in Cambodia’s relations with the People’s Republic of China. President Jiang Zemin visited in 2000, Defense Minister Chi Haotian and National People’s Congress Chairman Li Peng in 2001. China has moved from being CPP’s bitter foe to one of its closest allies, providing military and civilian aid, trade agreements and interest free loans.

Within the country there is a newfound stability since 1998. With the demise of the Khmer Rouge, there is no military activity in Cambodia for the first time in three decades, creating safe environment for travelling. It is safe to travel around the country. There has been steady economic growth in the last several years, focused primarily in textiles and tourism. There are now some 200 garment factories providing 170,000 jobs and 70 percent of the country’s $1.4 billion US in annual exports (Cambodia Development Resource Institute , October-December 2001:14). Tourism has rebounded well after dropping following the violence in 1997. Agricultural production is also up, with the 2001-2002 harvest predicted at a record four million tons (Phnom Penh Post August 31- September 13, 2001:3).

There remain however a vast array of problems including: poverty, growing landlessness in rural areas, a health system in collapse, an HIV/AIDs epidemic, and looming environmental disaster from logging and over-fishing. These issues will be addressed in the second section of this course.

Read a background essay on the July 5 - 6 1997 "events"

End Notes

1. All together these groups constituted only some 10 percent of the prewar population. In the 1950s the population was roughly 87 percent Khmer, 8 percent Vietnamese, 3 percent Chinese, and 2 percent Cham, Upland minority groups and "other". (Ebihara 1968, pp. 51-56).

2. The allegations focused on the fact that some of the metal seals on the ballot boxes had broken in transport to the counting sites. The boxes with broken seals were counted separately and showed no significant differences from the overall trends of the ballot count. Futher, the numbers of ballots effected were too low to have altered the course of the elections. Hun Sen, in an interview in July 1998 again repeated the claim that the CPP had lost the 1993 election because of foul play on the part of UNTAC. (Kyoto News Service July 26, 1998).

3. The IMF had already previously suspended aid payments because of the government's failure to collect tax revenues, particularly taxes on vast logging operations.

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