Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Cambodian politics rocked by intrigue

STRANGE DAYS The king signed a bill he'd said he wouldn't, a Khmer Rouge veteran was kept in power and the acting head of state left the country quickly


A photo from last November shows Cambodian Senate President Chea Sim, right, the country's acting head of state, and Prime Minister Hun in Phnom Penh.


Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, after refusing repeatedly to sign a bill to pave the way for a new government, finally agreed yesterday to reappoint Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Information Ministry said.

In a document signed by Sihanouk yesterday and released by the ministry, the King said he had approved a request from Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to appoint the former Khmer Rouge for another five-year term in office.

Hun Sen has run the nation for nearly 20 years, making him one of the world's longest serving prime ministers.

"[I] appoint Hun Sen as the prime minister of the royal government of Cambodia," the King wrote.

"The Prime Minister has the duty to propose forming of government and seek the approval from the National Assembly."

Sihanouk also rubber-stamped another controversial bill already passed by parliament approving the simultaneous election of prime minister and National Assembly president.

Both Sihanouk and the opposition had questioned the legality of the so-called "package vote" designed to neutralize the inherent distrust and loathing that Cambodia's fractious politicians feel for each other.

The change of heart by Sihanouk, who is in North Korea waiting out a year-long post-election political stalemate, followed confusion on Tuesday in which senate president and acting head of state Chea Sim left the country abruptly "for health reasons."

In Sihanouk's absence, Chea Sim had the authority to sign laws already approved by the National Assembly and Senate.

However, the opposition said troops and police had surrounded Chea Sim's house prior to his departure in what amounted to a "coup" within the ruling party. The "package vote" bill was then signed by the deputy acting head of state.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra confirmed yesterday that Chea Sim and several other prominent Cambodian politicians had entered Thailand on Tuesday.

Yesterday morning Chea Sim underwent a cardiogram at Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital, but was released after a brief stay, hospital officials said.

Chea Sim, president of the CPP and the senate, leads a faction within the CPP that has long been seen as a rival to Hun Sen, although the rift between senior members of the tightly-run former communist party has been kept from public view.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was quoted as saying the flight of Chea Sim and his political allies from Cambodia were indications of a "party coup d'etat" within the CPP.

Thailand's prime minister, who has had a stormy relationship with Cambodia's leadership, confirmed that Chea Sim was one of several key Cambodian leaders to have unexpectedly entered Thailand, but he did not name the others.

"This is Cambodia's internal affair. Thailand won't interfere," Thaksin told reporters at his party's headquarters. "We have to pray that the turmoil in Cambodia will end soon and they can form a new government. We want to see Cambodia on the road to development."

The Thai military's Chantaburi Task Force, which handles security along the Thai-Cambodian border, was reported yesterday to have stepped up security, particularly at the crossing point at Koh Kong.

An Immigration Police source said Thai officers had been instructed to allow Cambodian "VIPs" to cross into Thailand regardless of whether they carried visas.

CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith played down talk of political instability and a rift down the middle of the former communist party, which has ruled Cambodia for the past two decades.

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