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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bun Chhay: loved, feared, admired, hated

Bun Chhay: loved, feared, admired, hated

G ENERAL Nhek Bun Chhay, the Funcinpec deputy chief of general staff, a chief negotiator

with the disintegrating Khmer Rouge, and the key source for current news about Pol

Pot, is a near-lifelong soldier who commands respect from his political allies, many

of his troops and even from former KR cadre who have defected on his word.

To political opponents in the CPP he is perhaps Public Enemy No. 1, the leader of

anti-CPP hardliners in the military, a "warlord" responsible for unauthorized

troop movements, the improper arming of people and a "crazy" strategy to

build up Funcipec's military strength.

Among reporters who have flocked to Phnom Penh to follow a tantalizing piece of information

he has passed along, he is known as an often-reliable source who occasionally shoots

from the hip - or a politically motivated manipulator.

As one of two deputy chiefs of staff - the other is CPP Gen Pol Saroeun - Bun Chhay

commands the loyalites of about 40% of the army, not counting defected KR divisions,

according to a western military attaché. His authority is strongest in the

northwest, where he was born in 1956 and spent most of a military career that began

in the ranks of anti-government rebels.

He says he escaped from the Khmer Rouge in1975 and fled to the Thai border between

Phum Malai and Phnom Chatt. "I tried to form the Khmer Sor [White Khmers] by

myself, but it was difficult and dangerous. Sometimes my troops were attacked and

destroyed and we would escape to Thailand and be arrested," he recalls. "These

troops were the main target of the Khmer Rouge."

After the Vietnamese invasion, he says he started his own faction. "In 1979,

I abandoned that movement and started a new one with seven people and two guns,"

he says. "It grew quickly to 150 men and I invited Kong Sileah from France to

give it an official name."

"I first met him in late1979. He was one of the founders of the Molinaka [a

royalist resistance faction Mouvement de Libération Nationale du Kampuchea

founded by Kong Sileah and Nhem Sophonn]. He was a sergeant at the time I think,"

says journalist Jacques Bakaert, who has interviewed Bun Chhay over the course of

nearly 20 years and has chronicled his ascent in his career.

"He rose in the ranks and became a trusted man of [First Prime Minister Prince

Norodom] Ranariddh. By August 1983, he had been promoted to deputy commander for

technical operations for Molinaka," Bakaert says.

A former resistance-movement colleague remembers Bun Chhay as a hard-working young

man. "He only had a high school education, but he was willing to take advice.

We would stay, eat and go into battle together," he recalls.

Bun Chhay developed a reputation for taking an active role in battle, escaping injury

many times. He wore wild boar tusks around his neck in battle for protection. "I

sat under a tree on a patrol in1985 to rest," he recalls. "When one of

my men sat in the exact same place, he set off a mine - killing himself and two others."

That same year, Bun Chhay rose to the rank of Lt Commander of the National Sihanoukist

Army (ANS). He commanded most battles around Tatum near the Thai province of Surin

at the time, according to the colleague, and developed good relations with the KR.

"When we would go deep into the forest to fight against the Vietnamese-controlled

government, he was able to persuade the KR to give us food and ammunition,"

he says. "Particularly from divisions 519, 801 and Front 250."

He believes Bun Chhay was a shoo-in for the senior Funcinpec military post, which

he assumed after the 1993 elections. "We have to work with our counterpart,

so we had to choose the best," he recalls. "He is young, but mature and

he sleeps on the floor."

Born in Ta Ong near Svay Chek in Banteay Meanchey province, Bun Chhay today is a

virtual lord over Northwestern fiefdoms, meting out rewards in a crafty course of

power patronage. He built the authority in part on a reputation for delivering on

promises.

"We owe everything to Nhek Bun Chhay," says a former officer of the 5th

division of the Khmer People's Liberation Armed Forces, non-communist fighters who

before the 1993 elections held a relatively unprofitable 26 km malarial stretch of

border north of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey.

Now its leadership has seized control of busy Rte 5 from Poipet to Sisophon from

officers of the former Cambodian Peoples' Armed Forces. "I don't know where

they all went," says the former KPNLAF officer. "But we are happy now."

Some Khmer Rouge defectors speak of him in the same terms. "As long as Bun Chhay

is here we are safe," a 519 division regiment commander told the Post in Banteay

Meanchey last August.

And he draws high praise from fellow Funcinpec powers. Says Interior Ministry Secretary

of State Ho Sok: "If it were not for Ho Sok and General Bun Chhay, Hun Sen could

do anything to Funcinpec - make the rain and the thunder."

At a meeting of Funcinpec government and military officials, several months after

Ranariddh's March 1996 complaint that the CPP had failed to share power, Bun Chhay

is reliably said to have given a stirring performance, declaring that the party should

no longer submit to political or other attacks by the CPP. He, for one, was prepared

to fight and to die, he reportedly said.

Such partisanship, not surprisingly, has put Bun Chhay at the top of the list of

Funcinpec "militants" that CPP officials are privately - and sometimes

publicly - scathing about.

"The Funcinpec military is divided into two: the hardliners [against CPP], they

are maybe 25 percent," said a CPP source last week. Asked who controlled the

hardliners, he listed eight Funcinpec officials. Bun Chhay's name was first.

CPP officials say Bun Chhay has been behind a strategy to boost Funcinpec's military

strength to even up the balance of power.

"There are only two people crazy enough to believe that this is the right strategy

and do it - Nhek Bun Chhay and Ho Sok," said one senior CPP official last year,

labelling the pair as "warlords" and "militants."

CPP blames Bun Chhay in part for the Funcinpec-CPP clashes in Battambang earlier

this year. Most recently, there have been allegations about so-called "underground

Khmer Rouge" who CPP officials allege are being housed at Taing Krasaing, a

Funcinpec military base under Bun Chhay's control.

Around May 1996, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen is widely believed by sources in both

parties to have sought the arrest of Bun Chhay, one of several Funcinpec military

officials Hun Sen has privately accused of "failing to engage the enemy"

- the KR - in the ill-fated dry season offensive against the guerrillas.

The arrest did not occur, reportedly because CPP military officials knew any such

move on Bun Chhay would spark a major armed confrontation, which they were not prepared

to do.

Journalists who deal with Bun Chhay frequently see a mercurial figure. As senior

military leader of Funcinpec, he is a much-sought source who seldom says "no

comment." With a statement, he can plant the seed to bring swarms of journalists

from the far reaches of the world. He is not loathe to speculate, mixing fact with

prediction - some of which doesn't come true.

He predicted the defections of KR divisions in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey in

mid-August last year and gave accounts of events leading up to the split. He gave

details and dates of meetings and armed skirmishes between hard-line and renegade

forces - denied and later confirmed by breakaway forces - which were exact to the

date and time.

On the other hand, he told reporters last Nov 21 that deminers Christopher Howes

and Houn Huorth were fleeing hard-line KR forces with 151 defectors and would be

in a government-held zone the following day. "He is currently about 20 km north

of Stoeung in Kompong Thom ... He is well, but very thin," Bun Chhay told reporters.

"They treated him well, but they made him work during the day and locked him

up during the night." He added that Howes had been made to teach KR troops how

to make improvised mines.

He could not comment on Nov 26 why Howes did not arrive as predicted, but maintains

to this day that the Mines Advisory Group technical assistant and his interpreter

are still alive.

Journalist Bekaert, with a long professional relationship with Bun Chhay, says: "I

think he is a usually relatively reliable source"

Like many reporters, though, Bekaert wonders about Bun Chhay's reports of a decrepit

Pol Pot sitting in a house near Anlong Veng - the account that has Cambodia brimful

with the international press and their stories on Page 1 around the world.

"I think it is strange that there are no pictures. It is such a big prize -

Pol Pot - there would be pictures. They have pictures of Son Sen," Bekaert says.

"Even if somebody is not a journalist, they would make some record, especially

if the whole world is taking it seriously," Bekaert says, adding: ""He

is not a compulsive liar, but he may be involved in something."

A locally based news photographer put it more bluntly: "We have been busy, but

the story is Pol Pot and the pictures are not."

"Nhek Bun Chhay is potentially the most unreliable source in Cambodia,"

charges a wire-service reporter. "I don't know if it is because he is simply

misled or is intentionally lying."

Says another: "He's dodgy. He gets the facts, but releases things strategically."

For sure, stories about Bun Chhay portray a man willing to do what he has to do.

A car importer remembers Bun Chhay surprising him with an order for vehicles. "He

didn't ask for a commission," the supplier says. "He said he wanted the

most vehicles for the best price."

But problems arose when a (CPP) military police unit seized the shipment in the capital.

"He asked me to come along with the paperwork and I was shocked when the armored-personnel

carrier we were following crashed through the gate of the compound and the MPs took

up fighting positions."

The fleet was released after brief discussions.

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