Cambodia's Funcinpec party searches for 'relevance'

OCT 20, 1999
Reprinted with permission from The Cambodia Daily

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 ministers.

"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 waves.

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 have.

"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 ministers.

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 think.

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 royal family."

CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith agreed and said Funcinpec's biggest asset is its royal appeal, because "having power is not as important as having supporters."

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 said.


Mention Funcinpec's troubles to one former party strategist, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, and he quickly looks toward the wall of his spartan office.

"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 council elections.

"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 Hun Sen.

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 January.

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''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 democracies.

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, he said.

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 Kandal market.

Far removed from any government ministry, he and his fellow cyclo drivers speak of Funcinpec in terms of one man -- Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

"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 disillusioned.

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 Ham Samnang)

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Copyright 1999 by the Cambodia Daily. Further reproduction is not permitted without written authorization.