Last month, former Cambodian Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh announced his return to political life after two years of quiet retirement. Speaking to a small gathering of supporters in rural Kampong Cham Province, the 66-year-old prince—a son of Cambodia’s mercurial former King Norodom Sihanouk—promised to breathe new life into the country’s downtrodden and divided royalist movement.
Coming at a time of overwhelming dominance by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which holds 90 of the 123 seats in the country’s National Assembly, the move seemed more than a little quixotic. When he retired in October 2008, Prince Ranariddh’s political capital seemed all but spent: expelled from his former party Funcinpec over accusations of embezzling party funds, his breakaway royalist faction, the Norodom Ranariddh Party, performed poorly in that year’s elections, winning just two seats. (Funcinpec, once a powerhouse of Cambodian politics, won another two).
The electoral disaster of 2008 also capped off a long period of decline for the royalists, who have sought to capitalise on widespread popular reverence for the country’s monarchy. Since Ranariddh led Funcinpec to victory at the UN-backed elections of 1993, the party has been adroitly out-manoeuvred by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP. In July 1997, Funcinpec was ousted from government by military forces loyal to Hun Sen, and Ranariddh fled Cambodia.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since then, the party has accommodated itself to the ruling party, joining it as a junior coalition partner in exchange for a token role in government. Once a robust source of opposition, the party is today little more than an empty shell of patronage, clinging barnacle-like to the ship of state. The NRP, again under Ranariddh’s leadership, spent the two years of his retirement in the political wilderness.
Announcing his planned return to politics on December 5, Ranariddh accused his former Funcinpec party colleagues of selling out to the ruling party in exchange for personal benefits and ‘rotten posts’ in government. He has since also issued calls for unity, appealing for Funcinpec members to abandon their bankrupt leadership and join a new party—to be named Funcinpec 81, after the year of the party’s founding—under his own leadership.
In person, Ranariddh bears more than a passing resemblance to his father Sihanouk, the patrician dynamo at the centre of modern Cambodian history. Like his father, the trilingual Prince—French-educated and cosmopolitan—today seems almost antiquated, a figure from a bygone era of Cambodian politics.
In a recent interview at his party’s Phnom Penh headquarters, the Prince said his decision to return to political life was made in part in response to thousands of letters and appeals from party members, upset at the current parlous state of the movement. ‘The royalist group has been divided into hopeless pieces, like children who have no parents,’ Ranariddh said. ‘I believe I must return and gather all the royalists.’