Sihanouk relative arrested on coup charge

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In another sign that the Cambodian government installed after UN-supervised elections is becoming increasingly authoritarian, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, a former foreign minister and half-brother of King Norodom Sihanouk, was arrested yesterday and charged with plotting to kill Hun Sen, one of the country's two joint prime ministers.

Prince Sirivudh had been under house arrest since Friday, when Mr Hun Sen ordered tanks on to the streets of Phnom Penh to protect himself from the alleged plot, but the prince was not taken into custody until parliament voted to lift his immunity yesterday. Although he is still secretary-general of the royalist Funcinpec party, which is in coalition with Mr Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP), Funcinpec does not appear to be coming to his aid. Yesterday Prince Sirivudh's French-born wife, Monique, said her husband's party "have put his head under water".

The prince's treatment echoes that meted out to Cambodia's former finance minister, Sam Rainsy. Regarded as one of the few uncorrupt members of the government that took office in 1993 after an international operation to restore democracy in Cambodia, Mr Rainsy was ejected first from the government, then from Funcinpec and finally from the National Assembly.

According to Human Rights Watch/Asia, repeated threats to his life "appear to emanate from the highest levels of the government". Newspaper editors and other critics of the government have been subject to similar intimidation, but the move against such a close relative of King Sihanouk suggests his influence is waning. The 73-year-old monarch is revered by Cambodians, but suffers from cancer and spends long periods out of the country for treatment.

His son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is the country's other joint premier, but seems increasingly subordinate to Mr Hun Sen and his fellow ex-Communists, although Funcinpec won more seats than the CPP in 1993. The CPP, however, had the advantage of almost 15 years in power, having been installed by the Vietnamese after they invaded Cambodia in 1978 to oust the Khmer Rouge. The party's functionaries control most of the administration and the armed forces.

Cambodia's slide into autocracy can only benefit the Khmer Rouge, which still controls large sections of territory and supports itself by trading gems and tropical timber through Thailand. The movement signed the 1991 peace agreement but boycotted the subsequent election.