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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Frantic calls from Regent's Rm 406

Frantic calls from Regent's Rm 406

T he Post's Nate Thayer describes how he shared Prince Chakrapong's final

hours in Cambodia after receiving a dramatic 6:30 am phone call.

Loyalist troops had taken positions throughout the capital on the night

of July 2 as rumors swept the city that a coup attempt was imminent. Heavily

armed soldiers were positioned outside the homes of government leaders and

military installations by dark, and the children of senior officials were

ordered to stay out of the city nightclubs.

Officials confirmed "there

will be trouble tonight" and spoke of a coup attempt.

At 3:00 am

government forces surrounded the houses of the alleged putsch leaders, who they

named as former Interior Minister Sin Song and former Deputy Prime Minister

Prince Norodom Chakrapong.

Their houses were invaded, and weapons and

communication equipment seized. Sin Song was arrested and allegedly confessed to

his role in launching a coup. Chakrapong had fled his house hours before

security forces arrived.

At 6:30 am a call to this reporter said "call

this number" and hung up. A jittery voice answered after I dialed the mobile

phone. "This is Prince Chakrapong. Please, please help me," he said in a

frightened broken whisper, "Come right away to the Regent hotel. They have

surrounded me. They are trying to kill me."

In the 20 minutes it took for

me to arrive, the Prince called me seven times begging for me to come quickly.

"I am alone. Please, before they kill me, come now. Call the American Embassy

and tell them my life is in danger."

He was obviously hoping that a

foreign presence might prevent the security forces from harming

him.

Government troops and security forces armed with machine guns,

rocket launchers, and carrying walkie talkies were positioned on the street

corners and entrance ways around the hotel near Monivong Boulevard when I

arrived on the otherwise quiet early Sunday morning. But no one tried to stop

me, probably thinking I was a hotel guest.

Inside, hotel workers, white

with fear, stared blankly in response to my inquiry of where the alleged coup

leader was staying. But maids hovering in an upstairs hallway, opened Room 401.

A disheveled, barefoot, and petrified son of King Sihanouk was found

emerging from a crawl space above the ceiling of his hotel room, begging for

help.

"Please, they are trying to arrest me. They will kill me. I am

innocent. Please tell the American Ambassador to come right away. I need

protection," the wide-eyed Prince said, near tears, and jittery from lack of

sleep. He was alone. The bed was still made, and the curtains were drawn. A

ceiling panel was removed revealing a small dark crawl space. A chair was under

it to allow one to climb up. He said troops had been surrounding him since 3:00

am.

"I hear the rumor that I plan to make a coup d'etat. I am innocent. I

have nothing in my hands. I have no political influence now. I have no troops,"

he said. "Please don't leave me."

So began a four-and-a-half-hour drama

that, after scores of frantic phone calls and negotiations, ended with the

Prince being whisked to the airport by military escort and forcibly exiled via a

scheduled Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur.

Frightened hotel

staff hovered in hallways and peeked out of rooms in the otherwise completely

silent hotel.

Realizing that there was no press or diplomats aware of the

developments, and I was alone with a hunted, hated alleged coup plotter.

Surrounded by troops clearly prepared to invade, I opted to rent my own room

down the hall, with a better view of the troops, street, and hotel entrance

way.

I went downstairs to the front desk asked for Room 406 and handed

over cash. The desk clerk stared with a furrowed brow look of fear and alarm,

said nothing, and handed me the key.

I thought that it might diminish

the incentive of the troops outside to act precipitously if I was in a room

rented under my own name, and buy time to interview the Prince. The Prince

thought it was a great idea and came over to Room 406.

I made a quiet

call to senior government contacts and diplomats informing them of the

situation, hoping that they would get the message to the troops downstairs -

quickly.

My phone rang a few minutes later, saying that Co-Prime Minister

Ranariddh was aware I was with the man who allegedly was trying to topple his

government and assassinate top officials.

The three mobile phones in my

room rang constantly. More than 40 calls came in within the first two hours, as

Chakrapong desperately tried to delay the troops from arresting him, and

attempted to convince US Ambassador Charles Twining to give him political

asylum.

Chakrapong repeatedly denied to me that he was involved in any

coup attempt, cursed the leaders of the government, begged for my help and asked

me not to leave him if the troops invaded.

He fielded phone calls

constantly on his two phones, often listening silently and hanging up, speaking

in English, French, and Khmer.

King Norodom Sihanouk rang from Beijing.

"I am alright Papa, but the situation is bad. They have surrounded me," he said

at one point.

As more calls came in he broke down and again moist-eyed.

He looked dejected as Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk kept him up to date from

Beijing with the state of her negotiations with government leaders over allowing

him exile.

"It is not the Queen, but as my parents. It is not politics,

it is as a son," he told me when asked whether King Sihanouk and Queen Monineath

supported him.

For the first two hours, he was in fear of his life,

convinced that if arrested he would be killed.

"They tell me that if we

criticize the government, we are serving the interests of the Khmer Rouge. If I

am arrested, the embassies must stay with me, to keep looking for me. Please

don't let them take me anywhere. Please don't leave me alone," he said to

me.

The Prince asked me to contact the US Embassy to request political

asylum. I give him the mobile telephone number of the US Ambassador Charles

Twining. He calls and Twining is put on the phone. "I ask your protection, your

excellency. It is a human right. If you don't come to protect me I prefer not to

go outside. I prefer to die here. I will stay here in the room. How can I trust

them if they bring me somewhere?", he says to Twining.

Prince

Chakrapong's face shows that the American Ambassadors response is not positive.

"Please your excellency, if they bring me outside, if they arrest me, they will

kill me."

Chakrapong hung up from Twining and went to look outside. The

street was quiet save for troops standing guard. "Twining says 'you are not an

American citizen, we cannot help you,' " he said.

"They say this is a

liberal democracy," staring from behind the curtain down at the soldiers, "They

are silencing all opposition now. We will all be accused of serving the

interests of the Khmer Rouge. The whole world must know that this regime accuses

me without proof. If the free world helps this regime it is the end of

democracy."

Another American diplomat called my phone: "Tell Chakrapong

he is not a US citizen. As long as the government proceeds in a legal fashion

regarding his human rights, there is nothing we can do to interfere in a

sovereign government."

But the American message of rejection of official

protection was clear.

Crying young hotel maids burst into the room at one

point: "The soldiers are coming. They are inside now."

A disheveled

Prince - barefoot, shirt unbuttoned, sleepless, and dejected-began to put on his

shoes. He handed me his wallet and mobile telephones and asked me to give them

to his daughters. "Please make sure my daughters are alright. The soldiers

invaded my house last night and they were there."

But the soldiers

didn't come in. And the phones rang incessantly, sometimes three at the same

time. At one point, Chakrapong had King Sihanouk on the line in one hand, and

Twining on the other.

The Queen was still negotiating for safe passage

out of the country.

Finally Prime Minister Ranariddh - Chakrapong's

nemesis and half brother - agreed to allow the Prince to leave the country. "If

I am allowed to join my family in Malaysia, I will accept," he said at one

point.

By 10 am we saw Twining, other diplomats, and press begin to

gather on the street, to the great relief of the Prince.

"I have given

ten years of my life for my country for nothing. They are looking for a plane

for me," he said after hanging up from a call from the queen.

"I want you

to tell them I am innocent. I am a military man. I know how to make a coup. Now,

I have no power and no forces. How can I make a coup? If I was to do something

would I stay here in Phnom Penh?

"I left last night with no bodyguards

to come to the hotel because I felt something was wrong. Like when I was in the

jungle. I knew on the battlefield when something bad would happen. But I was not

afraid because I was innocent."

The military called from downstairs to

say that the troops were coming to our room now and that the Prince would be

allowed to leave the country.

He turned to me: "Please do not leave me. I

will only leave if you go with me to the airport in the same car. They may not

take me to the airport."

There was a strong knock on the door and I went

to open it. A score of heavily armed soldiers and security police waited in the

hallway as Twining and Co-Minister of Interior You Hockry entered alone. The

four of us sat down.

Hockry asked me to leave. Prince Chakrapong asked

that I stay. I said nothing.

"We will promise your safety to the airport.

I promise there will be no guns on the plane. The best thing for us it to bring

you safely to the airport," Hokry told the Prince.

Men were sent to get

passports and luggage at Chakrapong's house. A Malaysian Airlines plane was held

on the tarmac at Pochentong as Chakrapong was assured that he would be allowed

to safely leave the country.

The behavior of several Ministry of Interior

police, who were poised to arrest the Prince until minutes before, now went

through a bizarre somersault. They entered the room crouched on their knees and

hands clasped to their heads in deference to Royalty as they went about their

business preparing to send him to exile.

The Interior Minister said that

Chakrapong's alleged collaborator, Sin Song, had confessed. "I think that one or

two people cannot do this kind of thing. There will be more arrests," he said.

Chakrapong stared blankly, with a mixed expression of anger and fear.

At

one point, while, we waited for the motorcade and luggage downstairs, Twining

turned to Hockry.

"I just remembered, there will be a fireworks display

this afternoon at the fourth of July celebration," he said, suddenly realizing

that, as a jittery city emerged from an attempted coup, explosions in the city

might not be timely.

"Do you have authorization?" the Minister shot back

to the Ambassador, with an alarmed look on his face.

When the mobile

phone rang to say that the motorcade of troops was ready, we left the room to

walk to the street. Hotel staff and soldiers clasped their hands and knelt in

respect as Chakrapong was led by a bevy of sunglassed, automatic weapon-toting

officials through a throng of cameras waiting on the street.

Shoved into

a sleek Toyota with black tinted windows, we were whisked to the airport in a

convoy of a score of cars, including one with Twining. Streets were blocked off

and hundreds of people lined them to watch the motorcade pass. The plane was

waiting at the airport, full of curious passengers, as Chakrapong was whisked on

board and the flight departed.

He called several hours later from

Malaysia saying: " I want to thank you sincerely for saving my life. They would

have killed me if you had not come. I am innocent. I was not involved in

anything. Tell them I am innocent."

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