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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ‘Coup’ questions still echo, 19 years on

Acting CNRP president Kem Sokha lights a candle at party headquarters yesterday while paying tribute to those slain in 1997 factional fighting.
Acting CNRP president Kem Sokha lights a candle at party headquarters yesterday while paying tribute to those slain in 1997 factional fighting. Heng Chivoan

‘Coup’ questions still echo, 19 years on

Political tensions ran high yesterday as ceremonies to commemorate a bloody takeover by the CPP following the 1997 elections became fodder for the current political players.

On the 19th anniversary of the events of July 1997, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP snatched power from Funcinpec’s Prince Ranariddh, both the CNRP and former Funcinpec military commander Nhek Bun Chhay held remembrance ceremonies in Phnom Penh.

A Facebook comment from opposition leader-in-exile Sam Rainsy struck a nerve with the CPP, after he wrote the event was a “coup d’état”.

“CPP’s armed forces led by Hun Sen eliminated Funcinpec’s armed forces led by Nhek Bun Chhay. The legitimate Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh was deposed on that occasion.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan was quick to call out the smear, saying the “situation” was not a coup but a “crackdown on anarchic forces revolting, wanting to topple the legal government”.

“Because at that time, there were two prime ministers, [Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh], and the first prime minister wanted to topple the second prime minister by secretly buying weapons,” Eysan said.

“And then they brought Khmer Rouge forces into Phnom Penh to topple [the government].”

Chhay, now president of the Khmer National United Party, said he did not consider the event a coup, saying the bloody streetfighting was sparked because the CPP and Funcinpec had lost confidence in each other in the arms race.

Rainsy stood by his comments in the face of their impact on negotiations his party is trying to secure with the CPP.

“I don’t care about any additional ‘defamation’ lawsuit that the CPP may file against me at their Kangaroo court in Phnom Penh,” Rainsy said via email.

“On the contrary, it would even more clearly show their authoritarian face. Negotiating does not imply hiding the truth or stifling freedom of expression.”

In a speech, made in the Philippines last month but broadcast yesterday at the CNRP headquarters, Rainsy also triumphantly proclaimed the CPP had failed to divide the CNRP leadership.

Rainsy alleged the CPP had tempted Sokha to oust Rainsy, promising all his problems would be resolved; if not, pressure would be applied.

Kem Sokha has now been holed up at party headquarters for more than 40 days to avoid arrest over a politically charged prostitution case. Eysan fobbed off the accusation, saying Rainsy was just consoling his disappointed followers.

“In fact, he knows himself he will surely split,” Eysan said. “Our strategy in the past was: we let you be alive but not let [you] be strong. [We] let you be weak but [we] do not let you die.”

Additional reporting by Erin Handley

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