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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Sihanouk has returned to his uneasy country offering to play peacemaker. The ailing kng is back in the game

By Susan Berfield And Dominic Faulder / Siem Reap

Go to a story about Cambodia's economy

KING NORODOM SIHANOUK CAN wear many different robes. The one that best suits him these days is that of elder statesman. Many Cambodians call him "Papa," as in "Father of the Nation." Sihanouk is comfortable with that. It showed last week when he returned to Cambodia from Beijing, where he had been receiving medical care for the past six months. The Royal Air Cambodge jet, named Bayon after a temple near Angkor Wat, arrived at Siem Reap's modest provincial airport on an overcast Friday afternoon at the end of August. As the 74-year-old monarch descended (with help) from the aircraft, he bowed and blew kisses to those gathered on the tarmac. Thousands more lined the route into town, waiting beneath flags, welcoming banners and a soft rain.

Sihanouk looked well and wore an expression of unrelenting beneficence as he bent to touch the hands and heads of each of his subjects kneeling on the 40-meter-long red carpet. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, who ousted Sihanouk's son as co-premier in July, and the controversial new first prime minister, Ung Huot, received kisses on both cheeks.

Protected from the rain by huge gold and silver silk umbrellas (and from danger by North Korean bodyguards armed with stun devices and machine guns in canvas violin cases), Sihanouk and his entourage moved slowly. At the end of the carpet stood Maha Goshananda, a senior monk revered in Cambodia for his annual peace marches. The king embraced him warmly. "My message is national reconciliation and peace," Sihanouk said.

Later, the king offered to mediate talks between Hun Sen and a representative for Prince Norodom Ranariddh, now in exile in Bangkok. Hun Sen's dominance is unquestioned. Sihanouk is, as always, realistic. "If the ones who have power in their hands do not listen to me, I cannot achieve anything useful," the king said. "I have very good relations with Mr. Hun Sen, but he has his own ideas. I propose and he decides." Hun Sen, so far, has shown little inclination to accept the king's offer. In a three-page response delivered to Sihanouk in Siem Reap, Hun Sen did not directly address the proposal. Ranariddh immediately welcomed it.

Sihanouk's influence is unmatched. Hun Sen knows this: he traveled to Beijing last month to seek Sihanouk's royal seal of approval for Ranariddh's replacement. The king declined to bless the new government. Sihanouk calls Hun Sen "le strongman," Ung Huot a puppet and Ranariddh the legal first prime minister. The king has little political power in Cambodia, but his moral authority is considerable. For now, Sihanouk has calmed some just by being there. "The king is like a tree," says a young tour guide in Siem Reap. "We can all gather under his shade." But who, or what, the king decides to protect matters a great deal in Cambodia.

Sihanouk is expected to stay in the country for three months. At the very least, he will observe a series of Buddhist ceremonies and meditate on peace at Angkor Wat. The king also has to consider the precarious future of the monarchy following Ranariddh's departure. Ranariddh had seemed the most likely heir. In Siem Reap, the king indicated that this might now be Prince Norodom Sihamoni, 44, a half-brother of Ranariddh. Sihamoni's mother is the influential Queen Monineath, who returned to Cambodia with Sihanouk. Sihamoni, Cambodia's ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, is a ballet dancer and diplomat of some renown. But he has never displayed much interest in mounting the throne. The final decision, though, is not Sihanouk's. A royal council comprising the prime ministers and other senior politicians and monks has that privilege.

Siem Reap, the ancient capital of the once-great Khmer empire, is not far from Phnom Penh. But Sihanouk will keep his distance during his stay. The king will likely return to his Beijing residence. Some doubted he would come back to Cambodia at all. After the coup, retainers left behind at the Phnom Penh palace received a fax instructing them to pack up and move to the Chinese capital.

Sihanouk had left Cambodia quietly in February. He said he was unwell, but he was also disheartened. The sniping between the two prime ministers had become dangerous, but neither would accept the king as a mediator. In July the conflict turned even more violent when Hun Sen's forces ousted Ranariddh, who fled Phnom Penh just before the coup. At least 100 people were killed in the fighting and its aftermath. A few loyal soldiers, supported by a small number of Khmer Rouge guerrillas, are still battling Hun Sen's army near the Thai border. The Thai military is on high alert. Bangkok has offered limited assistance to the 30,000 or so Cambodian refugees who have fled the fighting. Sihanouk, meanwhile, has called for a ceasefire. The prolonged resistance may embarrass Hun Sen, but it has done little damage to his political dominance.

Not that Hun Sen is invulnerable. ASEAN, among others, still has doubts about the legitimacy of his government. He would very much like ASEAN to welcome Cambodia into the group this year. But that may not happen. Cambodia was supposed to join, with Myanmar and Laos, in July. ASEAN postponed Cambodia's admission after the coup. "ASEAN would want to see the results of the next elections before deciding on whether to admit Cambodia soon after," Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong said in Tokyo recently.

Hun Sen refused to relinquish power after the royalists won the 1993 polls. Then he pushed Ranariddh out of power, claiming the prince was illegally negotiating with the Khmer Rouge and importing weapons. Some worry that Hun Sen will not give up his position easily if it comes to that in May. But he has promised there is nothing to worry about. "I do not care who wins or loses," he said. "All I ask is to let me live too. Let me catch fish and plant coconut trees. I will transfer power."

In a recent speech he outlined a plausible eight-point plan to reduce crime and create a suitable atmosphere for the elections. The proposals ranged from imposing tougher weapons control to banning tinted car windows. (Such cars always shield weapons and prostitutes, he said.) Hun Sen also asked Sihanouk to be a supreme adviser during the elections. The king said he was willing, but doubted that voting would be free and fair. "If we continue like we have been in the past two months we cannot have a democratic, free and fair election," said Sihanouk. "We will have a guided, arranged election."

Some, however, believe that a truly free and fair campaign would disappoint Hun Sen. Discreet surveys conducted by his own party indicate that Hun Sen will not win anything like a majority. The U.N. mission in Cambodia, whatever its faults, did succeed in inculcating a reasonable understanding of what democracy means. And most believe that Hun Sen's version does not come close to the definition.

Hun Sen has shown little tolerance for dissent, or criticism. Opposition parties operate in fear and, lately, in exile. In March a grenade exploded, and killed at least 16, at a rally led by opposition politician Sam Rainsy. He left the country. There are no independent, vernacular newspapers in Cambodia, and many of those that supported the royalist party closed down after the coup.

The day after Sihanouk's return, a special representative of the U.N. secretary general arrived in Phnom Penh to complete a human rights report. It is expected to be bleak. The U.N. Center for Human Rights in Cambodia has compiled at least 40 credible reports of extrajudicial killings after the coup. Hun Sen has criticized the center's investigations.

One of Sihanouk's first acts after his return to Cambodia was to award royal decorations to eight U.N. human rights workers and one representative from Amnesty International. The king seems to wear his influence well these days.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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