All is not well in Funcinpec (FCP), the royalist party founded by ex-King Norodom Sihanouk. And that is putting it mildly. At last count, all was certainly and most seriously unwell in the party which Sihanouk's son Prince Norodom Ranariddh inherited from his father.
An Extraordinary Congress on Wednesday October 18 voted to remove Ranariddh as party leader on the grounds that he was no longer discharging his duties as expected of him, that he was away from the country all too often and that he was unable to work with Prime Minister Hun Sen given that the two were now no longer on cordial terms.
These are indeed serious allegations which Ranariddh would have difficulty in dismissing off-hand, as he is often wont to. The bold and unprecedented move by a strong faction within the party was immediately declared as illegal by Ranariddh loyalists who pointed out, not without merit, that under the FCP constitution, Ranariddh was president for life - one reason why he had survived in that embattled post for so long.
There was even greater surprise that the Congress had chosen Keo Puth Rasmey, Cambodia's Ambassador to Germany, as the worthy replacement for Ranariddh. Rasmey is Ranariddh's brother-in-law by marriage to Princess Arun, Ranariddh's royal half-sister. Rasmey is a mild, amiable and hard-working diplomat, respected by his peers but viewed as a highly unlikely candidate for leader of such a fractious party.
The Congress very cleverly did not throw out Ranariddh, they just kicked him upstairs as “historic leader”: a high sounding ceremonial position with little power. They also unveiled a new party logo which was strikingly similar to the previous one except that Ranariddh's portrait is tellingly removed.
The widespread speculation is that the “ouster” of Ranariddh and the selection of Rasmey were the brainchild of FCP Secretary General Nhiek Bun Chhay, a former Defence Minister whose faction is close to the CPP. Two others closely associated with Bun Chhay in this initiative are the wily politician and psychological warfare strategist Lu Lay Sreng and the urbane and friendly Prince Sisowath Sirirath, himself a former Defence Minister and Ambassador at the UN.
Both Lu Lay Sreng and Sisowath Sirirath were chosen as deputies to Rasmey.
The general consensus is that with Ranariddh's removal as President, if that comes to pass, power in the party will shift from the President-Chairman to the Secretary-General. Bun Chhay will be the effective leader. There are also those who point out that an important figure behind the scenes will be Princess Arun, Rasmey's wife and Sirirath's former wife and presently proudly representing her country as Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur.
A keen Cambodian observer welcomed the move as a shrewd “coup” by the Nhiek Bun Chhay faction hoping in the process to anger Ranariddh into resigning from the party, the one legal way for his removal, thereby offering an opportunity for the new leaders to prepare for the coming elections. The observer rightly noted that it was not in CPP's interest to see the demise of the FCP as that would only strengthen the hand of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
Apart from the legality of it all, the latest turn of events is in itself a sad commentary about the FCP which has now become almost a non-party. In the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, it won more seats than the CPP but it did progressively worse in the following two elections. The irony is that the royals are being increasingly sidelined in what had hitherto been a royalist party. A royal reaction to this development was a public call by Prince Sisowath Thomico, a close relative of Sihanouk, for Ranariddh to disband the FCP and for its members to join his newly formed Sangkum Jatiniyum Front (Alliance of the National Community).
Thomico, however, went further and called on the government to be dissolved as well and for power to be given back to Sihanouk, a position Ranariddh also subsequently voiced. In the event, Hun Sen's angry retort, in vintage Hun Sen style, was that those planning such a “constitutional coup” had better prepare their coffins first!
Former King Norodom Sihanouk, who like Hun Sen understands power play, not only distanced himself promptly from his relative's lofty hopes but also cut off the latter's monthly stipend from the royal purse, supposedly a serious admonition. This has not, however, prevented isolated calls for the royals to either move out of politics or to move out of royalty.