CAMBODIA approached the brink of political meltdown last week, as Hun Sen prepared
the scene for military action against Funcinpec, raising fears of open warfare within
the government coalition.
With all of Cambodia's leaders - bar himself - out of the country, the Second Prime
Minister publicly threatened to use force against "unconstitutional" enemies
and privately claimed Funcinpec was plotting against him.
King Norodom Sihanouk, in Paris with his son and First Prime Minister Prince Norodom
Ranariddh, was moved to issue a formal declaration that the Royal family would not
act against Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
The King also pledged that he had no desire to enter the political arena, and that
Ranariddh and Funcinpec had no intention to withdraw from the government or the National
At the Post's press time, neither King Sihanouk nor Ranariddh - who left on a private
visit to France soon after the King's departure for a state visit - were expected
to return to Cambodia in the immediate future.
The King, who had been due to return on Tuesday, was expected to remain in France
for a few days and then go to his Beijing residence. Ranariddh was reportedly planning
to go to the French town Aix-en-Provence to give law lectures.
In Cambodia, observers hoped that the King's statement had defused the situation
and that the possibility of violence had passed.
In the preceding days, unusual movements of troops believed loyal to Hun Sen, involving
tanks and helicopters, were reported around Phnom Penh. Rumors of military action
ran rife through the capital; some government officials choose not to venture out
at night, and Royal Palace staff were reportedly advised not to do so on at least
One government official, asked about troop movements south of Phnom Penh on one particular
night last week, replied: "It's been happening all week."
Hun Sen is reliably reported to have claimed to have more than 8,000 troops loyal
to him in Phnom Penh, including some transferred from other parts of the country.
It remained unclear whether Hun Sen had really been intent on taking military action,
or whether - if he seriously believed there were plots against him - he was simply
seeking to avert them by speaking out publicly.
But he was said to have called meetings with several diplomats last week, in what
was perceived as a bid to smooth the international repercussions of actions he might
take. At least one embassy is said to have relayed the message that it would suspend
aid to Cambodia if he effectively held a coup.
Pro-Hun Sen newspapers published attacks on Funcinpec, the King and Ranariddh. At
least one alleged that the Royal family - including the exiled Princes Norodom Sirivudh
and Norodom Chakrapong - were meeting in Paris to scheme against the CPP. The King
pointedly "deplored the hostility and injustice of the pro-Hun Sen... press
towards himself" in his statement.
Khmer Nation Party president Sam Rainsy was also in Paris, coinciding with an openly
anti-Hun Sen demonstration there April 29 which led Hun Sen to threaten his own demonstration
in Phnom Penh.
Also in Paris was Funcinpec Secretary-General Loy Sim Chheang - part of the King's
official delegation - until he returned early to Cambodia.
National Assembly chairman and CPP president Chea Sim - said to have criticized Hun
Sen at an internal CPP meeting days earlier - left to Singapore for health reasons
April 25. Sim, who aides said was suffering ossification of his spinal cord which
had led to headaches, was due to return to Phnom Penh this week.
The absence of the King and Chea Sim, who acts as head of state when the King is
out of Cambodia - along with Loy Sim Chheang, who is Sim's National Assembly deputy
- left National Assembly second deputy chairman Son Soubert as acting head of state
for several days. Chheang eventually returned to Phnom Penh to take over the position.
Fears of violence escalated after Ranariddh left for France a day after Chea Sim
One source said Funcinpec feared that Hun Sen wanted to arrest several leading military
commanders, either because he believed they were plotting against him or because
he blamed Funcinpec troops for the Royal army's failure to capture Pailin in the
dry-season offensive against the Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen had previously alleged that five unnamed Funcinpec people were planning a
coup, and on another occasion maintained he had received evidence of a plot against
Another source said Hun Sen had told diplomats he believed that elements of Funcinpec
were planning a fight with CPP and stockpiling weapons.
Rumors of trouble peaked last weekend. On Saturday, Hun Sen delivered a strongly-worded
speech threatening military action to prevent the dissolution of the National Assembly
or the Royal Government.
Declaring that he would use the armed forces to suppress any such moves, he said:
"[I] cannot allow you to destroy the Constitution. When Hun Sen dares to speak,
he dares to act and he has the strength to do it.
"...This Constitution and the National Assembly are not for you to dissolve
for fun at all."
In what appeared a direct reference to Funcinpec, he noted that the Constitution
provided for the government to have a five-year term unless it was deposed twice
within 12 months.
"Read it [the Constitution] clearly and if it is still not clear, read it again.
I don't want to act in a foolish manner. The people are in need of development, political
stability and you gather to dissolve the government, the National Assembly, to organize
At a Funcinpec congress in March, Ranariddh threatened that the party would withdraw
from the government and force an election "before the end of 1996" if CPP
did not agree to greater power-sharing.
In a statement dated the same day that Hun Sen made his speech, and released from
Paris the next day, King Sihanouk said that Ranariddh and Funcinpec "have no
desire to quit" the government or National Assembly.
The King declared "in my name and in the name of the Royal Cambodian family"
that "we are not forming and will not form a group of anti-Hun Sen or anti-CPP
The King's communiqué reportedly took Hun Sen by surprise, with his aides
privately saying that the Prime Minister had never intended to be seen to be attacking
the King or Royal family.
Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy - speaking via telephone April 29 - confirmed he had held meetings
with the King, Ranariddh and Sirivudh in Paris. He would not "elaborate"
or say whether they were separate or joint meetings.
"We are not plotting... [but] as you can guess, that while we are all here in
Paris, we must have some consultations.
"Everyone is reassessing the situation. We realize the situation is very serious,"
he said, adding he would return to Cambodia next week.
Political observers pointed to a number of issues which had worsened Funcinpec-CPP
relations since Ranariddh first spoke out against CPP.
One of the most significant was CPP's recent support for Cambodian politicians to
be barred from holding foreign citizenship.
Ranariddh - a French citizen - opposed any such move in comments to reporters days
before he left for France.
Hun Sen, in the same speech in which he threatened military action, demanded "one
passport, one choice" for Khmer politicians.
Meanwhile, some observers viewed with significance statements made by the King in
the lead-up to last week's crisis.
Among them was an April 10 "interview" with Royal Palace staff in which
he said he was prepared to head another campaign to defend Cambodia against "foreign"
invasion if necessary.
Such a move would depend on his health but, "if I am feeling as well as I do
at the moment, I would not avoid placing myself at the will of our resistance against
the foreign invader or invaders."
The King headed the anti-Vietnamese resistance, which fought the former communist
regime headed by Hun Sen, in the 1980s.
In an interview with Paris' Le Monde newspaper published April 23, the King said
his telephones were bugged and the Royal Palace was "packed with spies".
He would not say who was responsible, except that it was "some men in power."
In the same interview, the King said that Hun Sen was intelligent, a good tactician
and knew how to "divide to rule."
According to one reliable source, Hun Sen is said to have recently expressed private
concerns that, if the two ruling parties came to a fight, Funcinpec could receive
the support of the Khmer Rouge, at least in parts of northern Cambodia.
While no observers credited that as a likely scenario, they acknowledged that any
armed fight between Funcinpec and CPP had the potential to revive Cambodia's civil
war, wiping out the great progress made since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the
UNTAC elections 19 months later.
One prominent Cambodian NGO leader described the current political situation as a
"most grave crisis".
"They are raising the stakes all the time. I cannot remember a more grave time
for many years."