Funcinpec’s ‘new’ National Assembly members have long, chequered past

Royalist leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his party members leave the Royal Palace after the swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday in Phnom Penh.
Royalist leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his party members leave the Royal Palace after the swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Following the redistribution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s seats in parliament, 55 new lawmakers entered the National Assembly this week, though for some – particularly within the 41-strong Funcinpec contingent – “new” is hardly the right word.

The royalist Funcinpec party had its heyday in the 1990s – it actually won the country’s first democratic elections – when it held dozens of seats in parliament, co-ministerial positions and prominent roles in government around the country through an ill-fated coalition with the Cambodian People’s Party, which did not let losing in 1993 keep it from retaining its “ruling party” status.

But over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, many Funcinpec officials found themselves dogged by infighting and scandals, with the party ultimately slipping into irrelevance. Totally eclipsed by the CPP, it failed to win a single parliamentary seat in 2013 – when the CNRP won 55 – or a single commune in this year’s local elections, when the CNRP took 489.

Now, after the CNRP’s snap dissolution over widely decried allegations it was fomenting “revolution”, many of those same Funcinpec officials are stepping back into the spotlight – with a closet full of skeletons in tow.

For example, the National Assembly’s newly appointed deputy chief, Funcinpec’s You Hockry, was forced to step down as co-interior minister in 2002 following allegations by members of his own party that he was engaged in nepotism and corruption.

Even then, however, Hockry wasn’t unfamiliar with controversy. In 1996, as co-interior minister, he was implicated in the loss of more than 2 kilos of heroin confiscated in a drug raid. The haul, ostensibly being held in a safe in Hockry’s office, shrank from more than 5 kilos to just under 3 between the time he took possession of it and the time it was turned over to the court.

At the time, Hockry blamed other police officials, as well as a snafu with the weighing of the drugs, for the discrepancy. This, however, did not prevent then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen for insisting he be questioned in the case. A motion to lift Hockry’s parliamentary immunity, however, was ultimately tabled “so [as] not to pile up problems”, a National Assembly official said at the time.

After Hockry’s son-in-law, Chey Sambo – then an under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Tourism – was accused of being involved in a visa scam, criticism of Hockry within the party continued to mount.

Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh – still the party’s president – ultimately gave Hockry an ultimatum: either step down as co-interior minister and remain in the party, or refuse to step down and be both fired from the Ministry of Interior and kicked out of the party. Hockry chose the former.

Hockry could not be reached for comment this week.He will be joined in parliament by Aing Sambo, who – along with Nuth Sokhom, Funcinpec’s newly appointed deputy-president of the National Election Committee – was accused by staff members of misusing funds at the National AIDS Authority for personal use. Sambo was overseeing administration and procurement units at the time, and denied the allegations. Sokhom was a senior staffer at the authority.

Sambo yesterday confirmed that at the time he was deputy secretary-general of the National AIDS Authority, but said that a reporter must have “confused” the information, and declined to comment further.

New parliamentarian Say Hak, meanwhile, had a contentious time as Funcinpec’s governor of Sihanoukville in the 2000s. He sued the Cambodian Center for Human Rights for allegedly inciting villagers, and the Khmer-language newspaper Voice of Khmer Youth for accusing him of land-grabbing. At the time, Voice of America quoted local Deputy Police Chief Hul Vantha as saying that his forces stood under the orders of Say Hak when violently clashing with protesters in a land dispute.

In 2009, Hak made headlines by building a house atop the highest hill in Sihanoukville – a cultural faux pas given that the building was situated higher than a pagoda. In a speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen himself ordered Say Hak to sell the house or convert it to a pagoda.

Some of the lawmakers who now represent Funcinpec, meanwhile, were previously the object of internal strife, with some even kicked out of the party.

Newly minted lawmakers Sao Rany and Thav Kimlong, for instance, were kicked out of Funcinpec with four others after they requested the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk to persuade his son, Prince Ranariddh, to step down temporarily as head of the party, or else withdraw from politics entirely. The six were subsequently reinstated by a court judgment.

Indeed, Prince Ranariddh himself had also been dogged by controversy, with many defections in 2002 attributed to discontent amongst the party about his leadership. From 2003 onwards, the party saw a steady decline in votes and has not been able to win any significant percentage of votes over the past decade.

Ranariddh did leave the party for a time, starting a new competing party, only to ultimately come back into the fold following the 2013 elections.Funcinpec spokesperson Nhep Bun Chin could not be reached yesterday.

San Chey, country director of NGO Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said that the past of the new parliamentarians might prove a burden, likening the past scandals to a rash that won’t go away.

“All of this, I believe, will limit the competitive abilities, such as for any law or draft law . . . as those lawmakers wouldn’t be strong enough like the opposition [CNRP’s] lawmakers.”

Meanwhile, Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said in an email that the newly appointed parliamentarians were essentially political has-beens.

“This is a blast from the past. The abolition of the CNRP has handed a political lifeline to a range of forgotten figures and hangers-on from Funcinpec, who long ago lost any public support that they might once have had,” he said.