T A SANH, SAMLOT - Two helicopters touched down. One of them felt the ground for roughly
30 seconds before it became obvious that this was not a warm welcome.
A third helicopter - supposed to bring First Premier Norodom Ranariddh to this remote
commune near the Thai border - remained in Phnom Penh after a warning that former
Khmer Rouge troops were poised to open fire on their airborne visitors.
It remains unclear if just one, two or all three of the choppers were being targeted
and who was giving the orders, but an intercepted radio message revealed that anti-aircraft
guns were in position and ready to open fire, forcing Ranariddh to abort his Dec
23 trip to Ta Sanh.
"When I opened the [radio] frequency I heard them ordering a preparation of
anti-aircraft guns," said Hak Bunthoeun, a Battambang police commissariat officer
who had been assigned to take care of security for Ranariddh's visit.
"They said two helicopters were coming, one of them was circling [to land],
so prepare big guns to shoot them down.
"A moment later the gunner replied... the guns are ready to shoot," Bunthoeun
said. "Then he was told 'Don't shoot yet, wait for the order and allow our troops
[to get into position]',"
The first helicopter to touch down carried journalists and Under-Secretary of State
for Information Ung Tea Seam, one of 17 government officials making the trip.
As passengers climbed out a bodyguard of Ranariddh rushed to the helicopter shouting,
"Get back in!". They quickly re-boarded, jostling for access to the chopper's
hatch, but soon climbed out again. In the confusion the pilots had switched off the
The second helicopter arrived a few minutes later. RCAF Gen Lay Bun Song raced toward
it as the pilot prepared to take off from a 30 second touch-down unloading gifts
from Phnom Penh.
Bun Song climbed aboard and the chopper flew away.
Prince Ranariddh was expected to arrive an hour later, but he stayed in Phnom Penh.
According to Defense Secretary of State Ek Sereywath Funcinpec general Nhek Bun Chhay
had told him "the situation was not good" in Ta Sanh.
Apparently "the situation was not good" because the former Khmer Rouge
in Ta Sanh don't like their erstwhile comrade Ee Chhean - a commander of breakaway
KR at nearby Pailin - and have banished him from Samlot.
But Ee Chhean - and about 200 of his troops - had crashed the party.
In October troops under Chhean's command had attempted to disarm the Ta Sanh faction
in a bid to have them join Ieng Sary's Democratic National Union Movement (DNUM).
The incident came very close to an all out fight before Chhean's troops went back
In early November the Samlot based forces announced they would join the government
directly, a decision said to have been encouraged by general Keo Pong - a former
KR commander now closely aligned to the Cambodian People's Party - to undermine the
bargaining position of DNUM in ongoing integration talks with Phnom Penh.
Nhek Bun Chhay - who was visibly upset with the turn of events - fingered Keo Pong
as being responsible for the debacle.
"It's sabotage. The prince is a prime minister. His visit is in the name of
the Royal Government, not the [Funcinpec] party," Bun Chhay said.
"We recorded Keo Pong's radio order to commanders in Samlot. He told them to
get guns ready to shoot down the helicopters. We have evidence [he] can not deny,"
he said, adding that Pong ordered Samlot authorities to prevent civilians from attending
Pong denied he issued the orders and said that at 7 am of Dec 23 he was at Pochentong
airport. He said he had no radio which could pass an order from Phnom Penh to Samlot.
Pong - who defected to the government early this year - said there was an agreement
that Ee Chhean's Pailin forces would not be allowed in Samlot for fear of clashes
between the former comrades.
Ek Sereywath confirmed there was such an agreement, but said Chhean decided to have
his soldiers come along with him anyway.
"The problem was caused by bringing troops from Pailin. If Nhek Bun Chhay trusts
Pailin, why can't he trust [his] brothers in Samlot?" Keo Pong asked.
"What purpose would I [serve in] shooting down the aircraft of the Prime Minister?
If there were an order, they would have shot it down...," Pong said.
Some civilians - about two hundred of several thousand expected to show up for Ranariddh's
speech - said they were intimidated by soldiers who were loyal to the CPP.
"They must not continue the old-fashioned dictatorial practice forbidding people
to come or go," said Sok Pheap, a senior KR defector from Malai who visited
Ta Sanh with Chhean and Bun Chhay's uncle Prum Su.
A band of musicians brought in earlier by Funcinpec unplugged their instruments and
loaded them on pick-up trucks to be later flown back to Phnom Penh. Among them was
Theary, a Cambodian-American from San Francisco, who said she went there to sing
for Prince Ranariddh.
"We are not disappointed [with the disruption] because we understand that there
are problems," Theary said.