Faced with the question of where his party is headed, Funcinpec's
venerable secretary-general, Tol Lah, looks down at his shoes and thinks
for a long, long time.
"If you follow the disastrous events of July 1997," he begins, after a
pause of several minutes, "You would believe that the Funcinpec party
was hit very hard."
"You might even say it's over for us," says Tol Lah, the party's
second-highest ranking member and one of the country's deputy prime
"Right now, the goal is not to look forward so much as to make sure
that everything stays the same, stays stable," he says.
In other words, Tol Lah says the country should remain in a
"pre-democratic" state, where nearly one year after the coalition
government was formed, its junior partner has yet to make any political
Formed in 1980 as a military resistance party, the National United
Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia
fought along the Thai border for then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, opposing
the Vietnamese-installed government that eventually assembled the CPP.
Years later, the party, best known by its French acronym Funcinpec, was
installed as a legitimate second voice in the government and in 1998
gained control of just fewer than half the country's ministries, two
co-ministerships and 43 of 122 seats in the National Assembly.
Yet now -- amid a perceived lack of leadership, continued political
infighting, waning funds and a disabled army -- experts, diplomats and
government officials alike are left wondering what, exactly, is at the
royalist party's core.
"This party needs strategy, needs vision, needs leadership, needs
organization," said Kao Kim Hourn, political analyst and the author of a
recent study titled "Grassroots Democracy in Cambodia."
"The threat is there of Funcinpec becoming irrelevant. If they want to
stay relevant, they need a strong, guiding principle," he said.
Couched in his office at the Ministry of Education and asked to define
Funcinpec, a determined yet soft-spoken Tol Lah only can say what the
party is not: "We are not ready to be a party of opposition. The concept
of opposition is too new here. Sometimes you have to live with what you
"And for the sake of stability," he adds, "you compromise."
"Now is the time to stay quiet," he says, hands to lips.
Like most senior Funcinpec members, Tol Lah well remembers the party's
heyday. By the time it gained steam in the early '90s, Funcinpec had
secured significant support from the international community -- including
Asean. Eventually, its royalist leanings garnered a victory in the
heavily monitored 1993 election.
Under threat of retaliation by CPP members who cried foul after the
Untac-sponsored election, Funcinpec agreed to a peaceful power-sharing
coalition that established an unusual government led by two prime
Despite ongoing civil war with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and growing
tension with their CPP counterparts in government, Funcinpec managed to
maintain relatively civil relations with its one-time arch enemy.
But in secret, both sides built up their weapons, which led to violent
factional fighting in February and July 1997, forcing the party to
regroup in exile, where they eventually negotiated Prince Ranariddh's
return to Phnom Penh in March 1998.
In spite of his return to again lead the party, more than a few critics
wondered whether the French-educated prince had enough moxie to counter
the gritty CPP.
"When Prince Ranariddh came to take over in 1984, Funcinpec was small,
more a concept than a party. He came and said to the armies, 'Let's
struggle together,'" remembered one Western diplomat who was in and out
of Cambodia through the 1980s. "I thought, finally a young one who is
open minded, who wants to do something.
"But then power and influence overtook his goals, and he became
isolated," he said. "Privilege is so dangerous."
It's criticism oft heard in political circles: The prince keeps too
tight a grip on party power and decision-making. In doing so, critics
say, the prince could slowly be losing his ability to lead.
Soon after his return, Prince Ranariddh, who was unavailable for an
interview, admitted that Funcinpec was in dire need of new
leadership -- possibly in preparation for the day he succeeds his father,
King Norodom Sihanouk.
But rank-and-file members continually are reluctant to question him or
to brave suggesting who might one day take his place.
"The decisions, they still belong to the prince. We do not make
opinions on these things without him," says Tol Lah.
Deference and respect for one's leaders is what differentiates a
liberal party from communists, Tol Lah purports. Funcinpec is a party of
the individual, he says, not a group-think.
However, this individualism can give way to political infighting, which
many predict could one day disband Funcinpec.
In the case of appointing the Phnom Penh governor, for instance, Tol
Lah worries whether this simple decision to fill a post vacant since
last November would foster "favoritism" and cause long-term damage
within the party.
He also concedes that the party's sorely depleted budget will not be
replenished any time soon. Almost completely broke after the national
election, Funcinpec has decided not to hold its annual, high-profile
congress in March, Tol Lah says. Instead, it will assemble a smaller -- and
cheaper -- general assembly.
And as this once-powerful party undergoes an apparent decline, some are
reluctant even to give Funcinpec credit for its own downfall.
The diplomat, who has eyed the party closely for nearly two decades,
said Funcinpec's future now lies far beyond its meeting rooms.
"Can Funcinpec survive?" he asked. "The truth of that is not inside
Funcinpec, or between Funcinpec and CPP. It is within CPP, because that
is where all the power lies."
When the Funcinpec question is posed to Chhang Song, a senator and
adviser to CPP president Chea Sim, he does not look at his shoes to
He looks over his shoulder.
"Sometimes I wonder if they're still here," he quips.
Considering the question more seriously, he concedes that although
their influence is waning, Funcinpec remains a government necessity.
"We need them," he says in his signature gruff voice. "We need them to
show the world we are working at democracy. We need their resources and
knowledge to help develop the country. We need to continue to honor the
CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith agreed and said Funcinpec's biggest asset
is its royal appeal, because "having power is not as important as having
At the very least, CPP members say, the ruling party keeps Funcinpec in
government to retain clout with voters -- and with an international
community growing less tolerant of single-party rule.
If Funcinpec washed its hands of the government and returned to the
jungle as a resistance party, "there would not even be a semblance of
democracy abroad," said co-Minister of Defense and senior Funcinpec
member Prince Sisowath Sirirath.
Yet apart from these limited benefits, Chhang Song says CPP far
outshines Funcinpec in stability and longevity.
Headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who rose in the ranks to be appointed
by the once-powerful Vietnamese communists, the CPP will be a far more
formidable force in the 2003 national election, he argues.
"The CPP goes directly to the people. It delegates duties. It's
efficient," Chhang Song says. "Funcinpec has a lower level of activity."
Few disagree that Funcinpec initiates less activity in the government's
26 ministries, which since the 1980s have been staffed by CPP bosses.
Many Funcinpec loyalists, however, argue their low efficacy does not
stem from within their party. The CPP may retain Funcinpec to uphold its
image, they say, but it also holds the junior party down and keeps it
from wielding too much influence.
Chhim Narith, a recent returnee from the US and a Funcinpec loyalist,
says he wishes his party could do more in government.
"The foundation to rebuild Cambodia is there already. But it's their
foundation, not ours," says Chhim Narith, a Ministry of Commerce
undersecretary of state, whose father, Minister of Rural Development
Chhim Seak Leng, is a Funcinpec founder.
International commentators call it the "divide-and-rule game" by the
CPP to maintain a positive image abroad and with voters but to slowly
erode Funcinpec's power.
One Asian diplomat cautioned, however, that if CPP takes
divide-and-rule too far, its image too could decline.
"The CPP controls everything now," he said. "This is becoming more and
more clear to the world, and it will only hurt the perception of
Cambodia in the end."
He and others have hinted that the divide-and-rule game keeps some key
Funcinpec players out of the political fray by tempting them with offers
to maintain the status quo.
While this likely does not apply to the majority of Funcinpec, one
member of the party's steering committee said he has a phrase for
colleagues who've grown a little too comfortable with their quiet,
unchallenging roles in government.
"As we say in Khmer: 'Be careful, or you'll drown in the milk,'" he
Mention Funcinpec's troubles to one former party strategist, Prince
Norodom Sirivudh, and he quickly looks toward the wall of his spartan
"Every day I look at that number," he says, pointing to the roughly
1,600 communes scheduled to elect representatives in next year's commune
"It's so much more important than the national elections. It means that
a good No 2 can someday be a great No 1," says Prince Sirivudh.
At one time pegged by Prince Ranariddh to lead the party, Prince
Sirivudh, the King's half-brother and current adviser, was expelled from
the country in 1995 on charges he conspired to kill CPP Prime Minister
Prince Sirivudh was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison, but as
part of last year's coalition deal between Funcinpec and CPP, the King
amnestied him and cleared the path for his return from exile last
A strong proponent of Funcinpec as an opposition party, Prince Sirivudh
angered his nephew, Prince Ranariddh, when he publicly supported
opposition party leader Sam Rainsy.
Although the controversial Prince Sirivudh says he now is but a "simple
member" of Funcinpec, he has high hopes the party will grow more vocal
before the elections. Yet he is the first to admit the party still lacks
a solid platform to offer voters.
"This 'wait and see' policy...it's not dynamic," he says.
One CPP central committee member defended Funcinpec's complacence over
the last year and said only an opposition party has the right to attack
the government. "Having Funcinpec in government -- it's the only way. It's
difficult to say they are quiet, because they have their own
responsibilities. They maintain their power," he said.
Defending their perceived silence, Funcinpec members are quick to
assert that politicking here is not the same as in developed
In the West, opposite party members criticize each other and then go
out for lunch, but here, "you criticize them and you've made an enemy
for life," said co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath. In
short, making enemies is no prudent move without an army to back you up,
Since at least 100 Funcinpec soldiers and four top generals -- Ho Sok,
secretary of state at the Interior Ministry; Ly Seng Hong, RCAF deputy
chief of general staff; Chao Sambath, deputy chief of intelligence and
espionage for the RCAF supreme command; and Krouch Yoeum, an
undersecretary of state for the Defense Ministry -- were executed during
the 1997 fighting, the party's military forces have yet to bounce back.
And many contend its fearful silence only forms a policy black hole.
Without a tangible party platform, they argue, all Funcinpec has to
campaign on are its royalist beginnings.
"People still love royalty. All references still go to His Majesty the
King. We must not forget this. But we also must give them something
more," Prince Sirivudh says.
Without King Sihanouk in the Royal Palace, almost all experts agree
Funcinpec's future looks bleak. Although many are reluctant to speak of
it out of respect for the monarch, they say no replacement could conjure
up the images of peace and stability the King connotes -- even though he
has no formal relationship with the party.
In light of its continual lack of policy and heavy reliance on royalty,
a pessimism has surfaced among observers about Funcinpec's campaign
platform for the commune elections.
Despite Prince Sirivudh's seemingly bright vision of his party's
future, one former CPP operative said Funcinpec has made little impact
in the rural areas, where both CPP and Sam Rainsy have built inroads,
respectively applying strong-arm tactics and populist sympathy.
Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy,
said this ineffectiveness only hurts Funcinpec's once-faithful
supporters in the end. "There's a disappointment among people with the
party," he said. "They expect results from the people they elect. Here,
in Cambodia, where there is so much to do, they deserve results."
Ask Mau Sam Mean about the party he's been loyal to for most of his 50
years, and he looks down the littered street that houses Phnom Penh's
Far removed from any government ministry, he and his fellow cyclo
drivers speak of Funcinpec in terms of one man -- Prince Norodom
"He lied to us," Mau Sam Mean says emphatically. "He said he would
fight corruption in government. But since the elections, nothing has
happened. He has not solved anything."
Of the five market regulars gathered, three agree. One woman says she
could not desert the King and vote for CPP, but the others clearly are
Mau Sam Mean speaks on their behalf: "I feel heartbroken....I think
many people feel disappointed for Funcinpec, but they are afraid to say
so," he says. "If the prince keeps dragging his leg like he is today, I
don't think his party can last much longer."
(Additional reporting by