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Cambodia Must Pick Up And Go On, Without The King Father

FOR PUBLICATION
AHRC-ETC-033-2012
November 1, 2012

An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Cambodia: The Country Must Pick Up And Go On, Without The King Father

On October 15, an e-mail from a ranking member of Cambodia's royal family, a good friend from 1970, landed in my box: "Dear Gaffar, I am very sad to inform you that former King Norodom Sihanouk had just passed away on early Monday morning, 15 October 2012 at 1:30am in Beijing. He was 89 years old and would have been 90 on 31 October. With sincerest regards, Your friend."

"Dear M'chas," I responded immediately, "Please accept my condolences to the royal family for the passing away of the King Father. May He rest in eternal peace. Warm regards, Gaffar." "Thank you very much for your kind thoughts," the prince quickly acknowledged. So, I spent my evening in the US and he spent his daylight in Phnom Penh conversing via e-mail about the future.

I then watched the daily postings on the Internet of condolences from Cambodian expatriates, skimmed posted articles by Western journalists and scholars, as I mused about the predictability of the comments by those familiar to me -- some defensive of the deceased king's actions, others critical of them.

The numerous YouTube videos and photos of Cambodians grieving the King as his body was returned to Phnom Penh in a special plane from Beijing on October 17 -- and after -- leave no doubt of the Khmer people's (the elderly, in particular) love and reverence for their King Father.

For three months, the King's body will lie in state at the Royal Palace for the public to pay their last respects; cremation is scheduled for the first week of February 2013. A statue of the King Father -- father of Cambodia's independence from France -- will be erected in a public park east of Cambodia's Independence Monument.

Politics

Politics divides as well as unites. What one does with politics is influenced by one's political values and beliefs.

My strong attachment to the principles of republicanism, reinforced by my US training in political science, plus my political support for the Khmer Republic, alienated me from some in the royalist faction, and won me some severe critics, especially among those who never knew me. Ironically, my association with some members of the royal family was solidified in the 1970s when the Khmer republican spirit took root after former chief of state Sihanouk was deposed.

In 1981, some Cambodians from the royalist faction and (republican-leaning) Cambodians of my political spectrum found themselves working together as "cooperationists," as some foreign circles dubbed them. The political alliance was developed both at the Khmer-Thai border, where I became a member of the nationalist Khmer People's National Liberation Front in 1980, and at the United Nations. We non-communist Cambodians of different backgrounds closed ranks to lobby for international support for the struggle against Vietnam's military occupation of Cambodia.

We had clear goals: We disliked the Khmer Rouge, wanted the Vietnamese out of Cambodia, and found more common ground in our views of the future than we ever could with the murderous "Pol Potists" or those installed by Vietnam.

Some of us were chastised by members of our respective parties for daring to cooperate.

I gave my all in the Khmer national struggle. Prince Sihanouk took presidency in 1982 of a coalition of Cambodians to fight Vietnam's military occupiers, who seized Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. The Vietnamese installed a puppet regime, and in 1985 made a Khmer Rouge commander and defector Hun Sen the country's prime minster.

We, non-communists, believed by working together our two noncommunist factions would be able to keep a Khmer Rouge dominance in check, and working together in common purpose rather than separately, we would be better able to pressure Vietnam to withdraw troops and negotiate.

It was during the fight against Vietnam's occupation that I had opportunities to participate in working sessions with President Sihanouk (and through social functions met Princess Monique).

Personally, I found Samdech and Neak Moneang to be generous, kind, with undeniably great amiable personalities. I must admit to having been poked at by Samdech, who smiled, as he mentioned "putschists" overthrowing him; and to having received an occasional disapproving look from Samdech whenever I tangled with Khmer Rouge Khieu Samphan and his party in a military tripartite meeting. I knew Samdech the President wanted no conflict that may hurt the national struggle against the Vietnamese.

Cambodia's King Father Sihanouk is dead. In writing this article, I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

Here are two stories of Samdech Sihanouk, one not (yet?) written because it has not been known. Another is known and is subject to interpretation.

Sihanouk and legacy of nationalists' unity

A certain political action, if undertaken, may change the face and the destiny of Cambodia.

Before the proclamation of the tripartite Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in 1982, Samdech Sihanouk held a meeting in his hotel suite with KPNLF President Son Sann.
Samdech told Son Sann of Samdech's pleasure to see KPNLF letterhead carrying the Khmer National Flag -- the same national flag of the Khmer Monarchy – and the inscription of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, which Samdech read in Khmer, Ronakse Rumdorss Pol Roath Khmer.

Samdech said he would like to adopt the same name for his royalist faction, but since both nationalist movements shared similar goals and values, their combatants wore the same army uniforms, and many of their officers were close friends, Samdech saw no problem if the two nationalist movements, the KPNLF and his own FUNCINPEC or Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant Neutre Pacifique Et Coopératif or National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia, would be "fused" into one movement, under the name Ronakse Rumdorss Pol Roath Khmer, and under Son Sann's leadership.

As Samdech Sihanouk spoke, I felt my adrenalin rush as I envisioned a new historical political development unfolding. My royalist friends who stood next to me patted my back several times. I was speechless. And then I was breathless. I heard no response from the KPNLF President.

And it was, again, Samdech Sihanouk in Beijing who, barely two years later, signed a document approving the creation of a Joint Military Command of the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces and the royalist Armee Nationale Sihanoukienne. Whoa! A bipartite JMC while the tripartite CGDK was in existence as the public face of the opposition movement?

The Sihanouk-signed document named KPNLAF General Sak Suthsakhan as JMC Commander-in-Chief, ANS General Teap Ben as JMC Deputy Commander-in-Chief; ANS General Tuan Chay as JMC Chief of Staff, and myself, from the KPNLAF, as JMC Deputy Chief of Staff. The JMC headquarters, located away from both armies' headquarters, was staffed with KPNLAF and ANS personnel who lived, shared meals, and worked together under the same roof.

Unfortunately, the Khmer culture of factionalism, discord, exclusiveness, vindictiveness, practiced in both armies, had a polarizing effect, making "unity" among Cambodians near impossible. Ironically, Cambodia is a nation in which some 96 percent of the population are registered as Buddhists, whose Lord preached love, peace, tolerance and compassion.

Reconciliation?

Moving to the present day, in an October 18 broadcast, the Voice of America reported self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy's October 17 letter to dictator Hun Sen "seeking permission" to return to Cambodia in the "spirit of reconciliation and national unity" to mourn the passing of the King Father, "and see his face for the last time."

The VOA quoted political analyst Chea Vannath: "The King Father would have been pleased to see his children have unity, for his children to have mutual compassion, for his children to mutually forgive each other. All of these are in the national interest…"

"He can come as he wants," the VOA reported government Information Minister Khieu Kanharith as saying, "But we cannot give any orders to the court." Rainsy faces 10 years imprisonment for incitement, disinformation, defamation and destruction of property, plus an additional two-year jail term for accusing Hun Sen's foreign minister Hor Namhong of having been a member of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Rainsy rejects all the charges as politically motivated and without foundation.

On October 25, the Cambodia Daily reported Rainsy's request was returned to him for a third time on the 24th, and quoted Son Soubert, advisor to the late King Father's son, current King Sihamoni, "Obviously, it shows that they (the regime) are unwilling to comply with the request," indicating the king would be happy to let Rainsy return but Hun Sen must approve.

According to Radio Free Asia, Hun Sen's Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan declared, "I simply consider (Rainsy's requests) to be advertisements in the newspaper." Yet, the King Father's private secretary Prince Thomico argued, "Hun Sen has promised to protect the monarchy . . . (and) if we regard (the King Father) as the father of national reconciliation, we should release all political prisoners." The problem is Hun Sen never sees himself as a part of Prince Thomico's "we." The lesson is Hun Sen interferes with the judiciary when it suits his purposes and keeps his hands off when it doesn't, and the world community continues to fund his government yearly to stay in power.

Reconciliation, or restoring friendship or ending variance through establishing harmony, is not a language to which dictators respond. Unity, or aggregating two or more parts into one, is not possible with Hun Sen's dictatorial regime that demands exclusive powers.

On the 29th, the Cambodia Daily reported Kanharith's message that Hun Sen could not allow Rainsy's return to pay respects to the late King Father without Rainsy being arrested.

A revealing article

Forty-three-year-old Princess Norodom Soma completed her Master's degree program in mass communication at California State University in Fresno. She is the daughter of retired Class One air force officer Prince Norodom Vatvani, a jet pilot. A Cambodian-American, Ms. Soma worked at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, before she joined the Phnom Penh Post as a columnist.

Last week, Soma's "We should be united," examines the future Cambodia's monarchy now that the King Father has passed away: What will happen next? She is direct: The Khmer royal family has neither political power nor financial wealth; Cambodia's reigning monarch, 59-year-old Sihamoni, the King Father's son, is only a figurehead, it's the Hun Sen government that rules the country; the nine-member Throne Council, comprising Hun Sen and top officials from the National Assembly and the Senate, all from the ruling Cambodian People's Party, decides who should be the next king. "The future of the monarchy is in their hands," Soma affirms.

Soma's article is revealing in her description of the late King Father's memorial ceremony on October 17 when his body arrived from Beijing and lay inside the Throne Hall of the Royal Palace. The Throne Hall was "overcrowded" with government officials, delegates and VIPs from Asian countries giving Soma a feeling of being at "an ASEAN Summit Meeting instead of a memorial service for a beloved family member."

Soma lamented, "Some members of the Royal Family could not get inside the Throne Hall of the Royal Palace to pay their respects to their beloved family member, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk."

Princess Soma bluntly noted: "I witnessed the division among my own Royal Family members on the first day of the memorial ceremony . . . We were all there to mourn the loss of the King Father, but some of my Royal Family members didn't even speak with one another."

Soma asks: "If we can't get along with our own family, what makes us think we can bring peace to the country?"

She answers: "With the current ruling party domination, and the division among Royal Family members, the future of the monarchy looks grim. Fear only grows in darkness. Once you face fear with light, you win."

Princess Soma speaks of the royal family, but what she says applies as well to the situation of Cambodians in general.

My royal friend whose e-mail I mentioned at the beginning of this article, told me people at his end are "very concerned and frightened whether (the regime's) grip will fall harder on the opposition party and how much more freedom will be curtailed," now that the King Father, the only voice that could growl at Hun Sen and his dictatorship, is no more.

I don't think Hun Sen will dispense with the monarchy at this time. I believe he needs the monarchy ever much more than the monarchy needs him.

Which brings me to the point I repeat often: The time for thinking that harmony and reconciliation will develop on their own has passed, if ever such a wish had foundation. The dictator has no intention of cooperating with those democrats who desire a more open government responsive to the rule of law. Democrats must increase nonviolent action to undermine and then put an end to the regime that survives only through oppression, the selling of national wealth, and the eviction of people from their homes and their land.

---------------------

The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at peangmeth@gmail.com.

# # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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