Cambodia’s former prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the king’s half-brother who spent his later years in the political shadow of his one-time rival prime minister Hun Sen, has died in France. He was 77.
The information minister, Khieu Kanharith, said he had received the information from the royal palace. The prince, whose royalist political party won elections in 1993, was ousted in a 1997 coup by coalition partner Hun Sen, who remains Cambodia’s authoritarian leader today.
In a condolence letter sent to Ranariddh’s wife, Hun Sen said his death meant “the loss of an outstanding royal dignitary who loved the nation, religion and king”.
Ranariddh was the most political member of Cambodia’s royal family in recent decades, continuing to lead the Funcinpec party to contest elections for years after he was ousted.
But in 2017 he dismayed opponents of Hun Sen by backing the dissolution of another political party whose leader was jailed on treason charges.
Ranariddh said there was no option but to work with Hun Sen, who has since effectively sidelined all opposition parties and now presides over a one-party parliament.
Explaining his position, Ranariddh said 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.”
His younger half-brother, King Norodom Sihamoni, has sat on Cambodia’s throne as a constitutional monarch since the abdication of their legendary father, King Norodom Sihanouk, in 2004. Sihanouk died aged 89 in 2012 in Beijing.
Ranariddh’s career exemplified not only the swings in Cambodian politics but also the way Hun Sen has neutralised all rivals since defecting from the genocidal Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s to help drive it from power.
Hun Sen led the Communist government in Phnom Penh backed by neighbour Vietnam for more than a decade while the Khmer Rouge waged a guerrilla insurgency.
The large Cambodian royal family lived in exile during this time, headed by former absolute ruler King Sihanouk who led Cambodia to independence from France and later abdicated a first time to enter politics and become prime minister.
Ranariddh was raised in France and was working as a French law lecturer when his father called him to lead a party to contest the 1993 elections organised by the United Nations as part of a peace process.
With royalist sentiment strong, Ranariddh beat Hun Sen’s former Communist party that year. But when Hun Sen threatened a return to war, a political deal resulted in a coalition government of rivals that made Ranariddh “first prime minister” and Hun Sen “second prime minister.“
The uneasy coalition lasted just four years. Ranariddh was driven into exile in 1997 after his forces were defeated by those of Hun Sen in bloody clashes in Phnom Penh.
He was pardoned in 2008 over a conviction for fraud which saw him ejected from the Funcinpec party, and made two more abortive political comebacks.
In 2015, he made an unexpected alliance with the man who toppled him, returning to Funcinpec in order to work with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s pParty.
Personal tragedy followed three years later when his second wife, Ouk Phalla, 39, was killed in a head-on car crash while on the election campaign trail with him.
Funcinpec said in a statement that Ranariddh’s body would be repatriated soon, while Patrick Murphy, the US ambassador to Cambodia, tweeted his condolences.