Former Cambodian premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh dies at 77

Prince Norodom Ranariddh died in Paris, said Cambodia's Information Minister. PHOTO: REUTERS

PHNOM PENH (REUTERS, AFP) - Former Cambodian Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh has died in France, the Cambodian minister of information said. He was 77.

The prince, whose royalist political party won elections in 1993, was ousted in a 1997 coup by his coalition partner and rival Hun Sen, who remains Cambodia's prime minister more than 20 years later.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said he had received information from the royal palace that Prince Ranariddh died on Sunday (Nov 28) morning in Paris following an illness.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a statement on Sunday that he and his wife were "heartbroken" at the news, calling Prince Ranariddh "a dignitary, (a) member of the royal family who was patriotic to the nation, religion, the king".

The half-brother of current King Norodom Sihamoni, Prince Ranariddh was the most political member of Cambodia's royal family in recent decades, continuing to lead the royalist Funcinpec party to contest elections for years after he was ousted.

But in 2017, he dismayed opponents of Mr Hun Sen by saying there was no option, but to work with Mr Hun Sen, who has effectively sidelined all opposition parties and now presides over a one-party Parliament.

Explaining his position, Prince Ranariddh had told Reuters that year: "Hun Sen, you want or you don't want, you like him or you don't like him, he brings about this national unity."

Prince Ranariddh emerged from the shadow of his charismatic father, King Norodom Sihanouk, and led his Funcinpec party to a surprise victory in a historic UN-run vote in 1993 that was to end more than a decade of civil war in Cambodia.

Although he won the vote, Prince Ranariddh was soon eclipsed and later ousted by the man with whom he agreed to share power, Mr Hun Sen, the leader of the former Communist government.

King Norodom Sihamoni has occupied the Cambodian throne since the abdication of their father, King
Norodom Sihanouk in 2004. King Sihanouk died aged 89 in 2012 in Beijing.

Veteran Cambodian analyst Lao Mong Hay said Prince Ranariddh had lacked the political savvy of his father.

"He was soon outwitted and overthrown by his far more talented rival," Dr Lao Mong Hay said, citing a Cambodian proverb that 10 learned persons are less than one talented person. "So Norodom Ranariddh happened to be one of those 10."

Prince Ranariddh's career reflected the way Mr Hun Sen has neutralised rivals since defecting from the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" regime in the late 1970s to help drive it from power.

Mr Hun Sen led the Vietnam-backed Communist government in Phnom Penh for more than a decade while the Khmer Rouge waged a guerrilla insurgency. The royal family lived in exile during this time, headed by former absolute ruler Sihanouk, who had led Cambodia to independence from France and abdicated a first time to enter democratic politics and become prime minister before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

Prince Ranariddh was working as a French law lecturer when his father called him to contest the 1993 elections organised by the United Nations as part of a peace process. With royalist sentiment strong, Prince Ranariddh won the elections.

But when Mr Hun Sen threatened a return to war, a political deal resulted in a coalition government making Prince Ranariddh "first prime minister", Mr Hun Sen "second prime minister" and returning King Sihanouk to the throne as constitutional monarch.

The uneasy coalition lasted four years before Prince Ranariddh was overthrown by forces loyal to Mr Hun Sen and driven into exile in 1997.

Following international pressure, Prince Ranariddh was allowed to return and contest elections a year later, but he never again came close to winning and entered into on-and-off alliances with Mr Hun Sen.

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