Sihanouk Poised to Take Control
Phnom Penh Post
Friday, 29 January 1993
By Nate Thayer
Twenty-three years after he was driven from power, Prince Norodom Sihanouk appears poised to reestablish himself as the undisputed elected leader of Cambodia after successfully forcing the Cambodian parties and the international community to rewrite the peace accords to allow for his ascention to power as president.
After months of debate, the decision to acquiesce to Sihanouk's demands to change the mandate of the Paris Agreement to include presidential elections is likely to fundamentally shift the balance of power towards Sihanouk during the crucial upcoming months when Cambodia attempts to form a new government. The decision to rewrite the peace accords comes as political violence, largely blamed on an increasingly desperate ruling administration of the State of Cambodia, threatens the ability of the U.N. to hold free elections and the Khmer Rouge formally refused to participate in the process.
In what some describe as an adroitly manoeuvered bloodless coup against the U. N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia-in who's ability to guide Cambodia to peace and stability Sihanouk has increasingly lost faith-UNTAC has agreed to conduct U.N. sponsored presidential elections before an elected assembly has drafted a constitution. The presidential election will be held in May at the same time as the constituent assembly elections.
The implications of a newly rewritten peace plan are broad for the future organization of Cambodia, and reflect a growing realization that the peace accords as they were initially written have failed and there is a need to revise the mandate in order to prevent the country from descending back into open conflict and partition.
It became clear in recent weeks that the Khmer Rouge would not return to the process, effectively partitioning the country, and ending any hopes that the original intent of the Paris peace accords to create national reunification and end the 20-year-old conflict could succeed in it's mandate.
According to UNTAC officials and diplomats, the SOC launched what appeared to be a centrally ordered campaign of political violence to intimidate and prevent opposing parties from campaigning effectively, when it became clear to its leaders that free elections would result in their ouster.
With the two biggest factions rapidly slipping out of the peace process, Sihanouk wanted the latitude of real power to create a coalition, using the results of a constituent assembly election only as a basis to form a government.
Assuming the legitimacy of a democratically elected presidency, Sihanouk is likely to attempt to create a post- election government that will bring in the Khmer Rouge as well as give the Hun Sen regime more power than they are expected to get through the elections. He is expected to try to form a national reconciliation government designed to create a foundation of stability. It is increasingly clear a democratically elected assembly would be unable to manage.
"It is a philosophical debate about peace or democracy,''said one the Phnom Penh-based Perm Five ambassadors, "Which is better? If we go to democracy without national reconciliation, we go to war.''
Some Sihanouk watchers say it is also a culmination of years of patient and carefully orchestrated obsession by the 70-year-old prince to avenge his overthrow and rehabilitate his place in history.
But the withdrawal of the Khmer Rouge from the peace process in mid-1992-their refusal to allow UNTAC access to areas of Cambodia under their control, the failure of the U.N. to demobilize or disarm the armies, and an alarming rise in political violence that led UNTAC chief Akashi last week to acknowledge that "the conditions do not yet exist to hold free and fair elections,''-has led most participants to conclude that drastic action was justified, if it could result in stopping the total collapse of the accords.
The U.S. $2.8 billion Paris Peace Agreement called for the U.N. to assume control over the key aspects of running the country by disarming and demobilizing the four warring factions and creating a neutral political environment for elections in 1993. The 120 seat constituent assembly would then have three months to draft a constitution and form a government. There was no mention of presidential elections in the peace accords.
Until now, Sihanouk has served as a figurehead but formally powerless head of the Supreme National Council, the national reconciliation body which was created by the peace accords to group the four factions and work with UNTAC until a new government was elected.
Attempts by Sihanouk, with the support of Russia and France, to hold early presidential elections well before the May constituent elections were met with strong opposition by the other members of the U.N. security council-the U.S., China, and the United Kingdom. Australia, also a key player in the peace process, was alarmed by the idea as well.
It was speculated by some that the attempt was a thinly disguised plan to abandon general elections, and form a provisional government with the legitimacy of a democratically elected head of state, to save what Sihanouk and his allies felt was a hopeless cause to create national reconciliation and stable government through the original U.N. plan.
But Sihanouk's public announcement in early January that he was ceasing all cooperation with UNTAC and the Phnom Penh regime of the State of Cambodia in the wake of orchestrated political assassinations against the Royalist main opposition party led by Sihanouk's son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, made opponents to presidential elections back down and set into motion a series of summit's between Sihanouk, the Cambodian political parties, and a series of regional and and big power countries, that culminated in the announcement last week that presidential elections would be held in May in conjunction with constituent assembly polls.
The decision by UNTAC and the powerful permanent five member countries of the U.N. security council to accept simultaneous presidential and constituent assembly elections, immediately rearranged the likely scenario for the structure of Cambodia's next government.
One big winner will likely be the Royalist opposition party FUNCINPEC, which is run by Sihanouk's son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, now the likely next prime minister. FUNCINPEC is widely viewed by Cambodians as the party of Prince Sihanouk, and simultaneous presidential and constituent assembly elections are expected to secure the party's ability to win the largest share of seats-if not the majority-in a national assembly, as voters punch the ballot of Sihanouk and his perceived party.
The People's Party of the ruling Phnom Penh regime of the State of Cambodia, the other major political party, is likely to be the big loser in the new scenario. Currently in control of 80% of the country, the SOC has become increasingly aware in recent months that free elections would result in their ouster, and are accused of launching a campaign of political violence and intimidation against opposition parties-particularly FUNCINPEC, in recent weeks. Internal UNTAC assessments of the political environment since December have become increasingly pessimistic of the chances for free and fair elections. The situation in one province, Battambang, was described as "alarming. The population believes that SOC has undertaken a full fledged campaign of violent political repression, thereby making it impossible for other provisionally-registered parties to seriously conduct legitimate political activities....the population is afraid to engage in any political discussions or activities."
The internal assesment, meant to inform senior UNTAC officials of the reality on the ground in Cambodia and obtained by the Phnom Penh Post goes on to say that "Ung Sami, the chairman of the provincial CPP and SOC committees is seen as blatently non- cooperative with the electoral process. He seems to show no signs of a willingness to change and participate properly with the process in the future....the population believes that he is coordinating, or at least condoning, acts of violence against his opponents."
Diplomats here say that SOC was hoping for immediate presidential elections, in which Sihanouk, in an environment of deteriorating political violence in the countryside would abandon the constituent assembly elections, and declare a provisional government, retaining largely the administrative apparatus of SOC.
Earlier this month, before the declaration of presidential elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared:"we have not found any measures to rescue the Paris Agreement from collapse...Now it is obvious that the Cambodian problem will not be solved through elections. The question is can voting take place at all.'' Such statements contributed to Sihanouk's belief that he would have to have the formal power to offer political deals to keep the factions from breaking totally from the road towards peace.
But, despite the SOC leadership's dwindling chances of retaining power at the polls, Sihanouk is known to believe that the SOC administrative structures are the only ones capable of running the organs of the state in a new government, and he is expected to offer them concessions to induce them to remain in the process.
One of the primary missions of Sihanouk will likely be to induce the Khmer Rouge back into the peace process by offering them significant representation in a new government, despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge have refused to participate in elections. With no seats in a constituent assembly, the Khmer Rouge would forfeit any right to have a voice in a future government under the terms of the original peace agreement. But under a Sihanouk presidency with strong presidential powers that would likely include the right to appoint ministers, palace sources say that Sihanouk will offer the Khmer Rouge positions in a Sihanouk-led government. With presidential elections, some see it as a maneuver to bypass the impasse over the Khmer Rouge: Both the legitimacy of the democratic process remains intact and the Khmer Rouge become part of the government. "Presidential elections are the only way to bring the Khmer Rouge back into the process,'' said Raoul Jenner, a longtime Cambodia analyst who serves as an advisor to the European Community,"They see Sihanouk as the only means to protect them from being excluded.''
In a Jan. 20 statement by Sihanouk outlining some of his intentions as president, he declared that "with the Khmer Rouge, I am going to undertake patient and repeated negotiations in order to lead them one way or another to not continue the partitioning of Cambodia and to reintegrate (them) into the national community. A government of Cambodia with PDK (Party of Democratic Kampuchea) participation is envisagable," he concluded.
Such statements show a clear willingness by Sihanouk to form a government that gives a voice and some power to those that would have no right to it through the election process.
The Khmer Rouge who have meticulously avoided being viewed as opposing Sihanouk since their overthrow in 1978, will be put in a difficult position to be seen publicly as opposing a government controlled by Sihanouk.
While a strong Sihanouk government may be Cambodia's only chance to avoid a total collapse of it's tortured road toward peace, it privately raises concerns among some countries and some Cambodian political parties, who are suspicious of Sihanouk's commitment to the democratic process.
Except for the Royalist FUNCINPEC party, the three other factions who signed the Paris agreement are run by leaders who have participated, at different times since the 1960's, in engineering his overthrow, putting him under house arrest, or forcing his exile. He was saved from a Khmer Rouge order to execute him only by the intervention of Chinese leader Chou En-Lai in the mid-1970's.
But his wide popularity among the population is both respected and feared by all the factions, and his absolute demand for public loyalty from all Cambodia personalities is rarely broached.
But it is not forgotten that, when he was in power prior to1970 his opponents accused him of using autocratic powers against them. Those who opposed Sihanouk have said he jailed opponents unfairly, that his secret police were efficient and cruel, and that he was surrounded by a sycophantic circle of corrupt elite. He also dissolved parliament several times during disputes while head of state in the 1950's and 1960's.
It is assumed Sihanouk will demand a presidency with strong powers, and seek to eliminate the powers of a national assembly that voted unanimously for his ouster in 1970. As well as powers that will guarantee independence from a national assembly, he will likely retain the power to appoint cabinet ministers. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Eagleburger on Jan.15 he stated:"If one day I am elected by the Cambodian people to the presidency of Cambodia, I will assume in place of H.E. Yasushi Akashi, from UNTAC and the expanded Perm Five the powers of the soveriegn chief of state, assuming their rights and powers to excersise, and I will assume all the responsibilities which follow from the use of my powers as Cambodian chief of state.''
Such statements reflect a frustration with UNTAC's failure to secure peace in Cambodia, but also reflect his long simmering anger at the United States who he blames for engineering his overthrow in 1970, and blames ultimately for opening the door to the 23 years of continuous destruction and suffering of his beloved Cambodia that continues to the present.
Perhaps most importantly will be his role as commander in chief of the army. The original peace plan called for Cambodia's armed factions to be disarmed, demobilized and cantoned in mid- 1992 as a key part of the peace agreement. With the Khmer Rouge refusal to cooperate with the U.N., the disarmament process was effectively abandoned by UNTAC. Now with the State of Cambodia fielding more than 150,000 men under arms and expected to lose power in elections, there is a likely scenario of the ousted party with a large army and police intact, and a new government with virtually no men under arms.
"Now we are going straight to elections with a lot of armed people. It is a new situation completely contrary to the Paris accords,'' Prince Norodom Ranariddh told the Post last week,"The new government will face a lot of military, police, and tanks that belong to the opposition,'' he said.
This nightmare scenario in a country that has no democratic tradition and a recent history of violence cries out for preemptive action. It is likely that the U.N. security council will change the mandate to give the new president clear powers of commander-in- chief of the army. The United Nations is expected to work closely with Sihanouk to set the stage of a transition to a new national army immediately after elections.
With the agreement to hold presidential elections, the UN is tacitly acknowledging that elections are no longer in itself the objective, but serve to guarantee that Sihanouk will likely create a de facto coalition government that may well have little reflection of the results of a constituent assembly vote. Constituent assembly elections are now being viewed as no longer the goal of the peace accords but a tool to achieve national reconstruction, national reconciliation, and peace. With the Khmer Rouge refusing to participate and the current regime not likely to accept their inevitable loss, the chances for bringing peace were slim and conflict loomed. A defacto quadripartite government carved from elections as well as concessions to the political reality of the powers of the two hardline factions and their implicit threats will combine to seek the objective of stability. The decision to allow Sihanouk to gain the presidency before a new government was formed is testament to his being universally viewed as the only one who may be able to keep the country from descending, again, to anarchy and warfare. It is also an admission that the Paris Peace Agreement and UNTAC could not.