Cambodia’s King Under Criticism for Not Intervening in Election Dispute

2013-09-10
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cambodia-sihamoni-aug-2013.jpg
Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni (l) and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath (c) greet Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany (r) at the Phnom Penh airport as the royals depart for Beijing, Aug. 12, 2013.
AFP

Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni has come under criticism for not intervening in the country’s election crisis after he ordered parliament to be convened despite allegations of voter fraud and other irregularities that the opposition wants investigated.

But some experts say the monarch has limited influence in a political landscape dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which was declared victor in the July 28 polls by the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC).  

Sam Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which denied the CPP a two-thirds majority in the legislature, has threatened to boycott the new parliament and has called on the king to help bring about a “transparent and just solution” to the dispute.

Analysts said the king, despite his limited powers, can still play a critical role in defusing the crisis by using his influence to prod Hun Sen to forge a compromise with Sam Rainsy in the national interest.

King Sihamoni said in a statement from China, where he has been for a medical checkup since Aug. 12, that he would return to Cambodia on Wednesday to convene the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, on Sept. 23,  encouraging “all parties” to join the session.

“The king must take action to seek national unity,” political analyst Sok Touch told RFA’s Khmer Service, hoping the monarch would emerge with a formula to break the political deadlock upon his return.

“I hope and believe that when the king returns to Cambodia, he will call on Khmer politicians of both parties to resolve the dispute,” he said.

He said if the situation requires him to do so, the monarch should not fear speaking out against Hun Sen’s party, because the people would support him.

“We regard the king as the shade [that protects us from the sun],” he said. “If the king only stays in the royal palace, how can the people be shielded?

“Who is the army of the king? It is the people of Cambodia. So, Your Royal Highness, please don’t worry. The people of Cambodia will support you.”

Protecting the monarchy

But Prince Sisowath Thomico, a CNRP member and former adviser to King Sihamoni, said the monarch may be wary of using his influence to break the deadlock as it may risk endangering the monarchy itself.

The CPP, he said, has at least twice made direct threats against the institution of the monarchy—once in 2005, when Hun Sen warned the king his throne was at stake if he did not endorse Cambodia-Vietnam border treaties, and again in 2006, when senior party member Cheam Yeap said the CPP could abolish the monarchy just as it had reinstalled it.

“Who holds the power at present?” Prince Thomico asked. “Who controls the army, the police, the armed forces?”

He said Hun Sen could “stage a coup to depose the monarchy at any time.”

“In order for the institution [of the monarchy] to be independent, the king must have a balance of power in our Khmer society and Khmer politics. Presently, the king does not have these,” Prince Thomico said.

King Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer, is a pale shadow of his father, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a powerful and influential figure both locally and internationally for nearly six decades before he died last year.

“We must understand the king’s heart,” Prince Thomico said. “The king inherited the throne from his father, so he has to protect it.”

The National Assembly

The NEC, which manages the country’s polls, on Sunday announced official results in the polls that give the CPP a slight majority in parliament with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55.

The CNRP, which claims it won at least 63 seats and called for a U.N.-backed investigation to probe widespread irregularities in the polls, has refused to recognize the results and is planning a series of mass demonstrations against them this week.

On Sunday the CNRP said its lawmakers would boycott the opening session unless there is a thorough investigation into electoral irregularities.

Hun Sen, 61, who has been in power for 28 years and has been accused of blatant human rights violations, had said before the final results announcement that he could convene parliament even without the CNRP's participation.

Some constitutional experts have said that the opposition lawmakers must be present at the first parliamentary session for any new government to be endorsed.

The CPP claims, however, that it is entitled to convene parliament because it has 50 percent of the seats.

Fresh call for investigation

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday urged Cambodia’s donor countries to refrain from supporting the official results and to instead press for an independent probe into the electoral process.

“Bias and unfairness in the electoral system, structural problems, and allegations of widespread irregularities may have changed the result of a close election,” the group’s Asia director Brad Adams said.

“Unless there is an independent investigation that addresses legitimate concerns, we will never know who the people of Cambodia voted to lead the next government, casting a serious shadow over the legitimacy of any government that the CPP forms,” he said.

The United States, which is a major donor country to Cambodia, reiterated its concerns about irregularities in the polls after the final results announcement, urging “all parties” to work toward a solution.

U.S. State department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a briefing Monday that it was not too late for a review of irregularities.

“We do still believe that a transparent review of irregularities in the July elections would help efforts to assess and address flaws in the electoral process and give the Cambodian people greater confidence in their electoral system,” she said.

“We are continuing to urge all parties, as we have, to seize this opportunity to improve their democratic processes going forward.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.