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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Making of a strongman: In July 1997, Hun Sen took full control of the country – and his party

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A government soldier walks in front of a burned-out tank at a street corner in Phnom Penh on July 7, 1997, after fighting erupted when then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen deposed his political rival, then-First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Making of a strongman: In July 1997, Hun Sen took full control of the country – and his party

Over two days of bloody armed battles 20 years ago today, forces loyal to Hun Sen routed troops supporting Prince Norodom Ranariddh, marking the moment Hun Sen crowned himself Cambodia’s supreme leader and decisively quashed any opposition to himself or his party from their royalist rivals.

Yet the July 1997 fighting between armed forces loyal to Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh also marked something else significant: the moment Hun Sen stepped above his more powerful factional rivals to take control of the Cambodian People’s Party itself.

“July 1997 marked the beginning of Hun Sen’s Cambodia as we know it today,” author and journalist Sebastian Strangio said in an email, noting that the 1997 fighting not only ended Prince Ranariddh’s challenge to Hun Sen’s power, but also that coming from within his party.

“After, he had eliminated Funcinpec as a meaningful source of opposition and stamped his control on both the party and security forces, which henceforth became adjuncts to his barnstorming, personalized style of rule.”

It was a coup de force that for the last two decades has helped elevate those who backed the prime minister in the fighting, channelling the ruling party’s immense power increasingly into their fiefdoms, while slowly sidelining – but never eliminating – the once more-powerful competing voices in the CPP that had urged restraint in 1997.

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Black smoke from a burning fuel station billows in the background as a Cambodian family makes its way out of Phnom Penh. David Van Der Veen/AFP

A one-man crusade
Tensions had been building long before July 1997, with Ranariddh and Hun Sen – as “first prime minister” and “second prime minister”, respectively, under their coalition after the 1993 UN-run elections – tussling for power, with many in Funcinpec, which had won the popular vote, feeling sidelined.

At the same time, both parties were actively courting the support of the remaining and heavily armed Khmer Rouge guerrillas still holding out along the Thai border in today’s Pailin province and Anlong Veng district in Oddar Meanchey province.

Hun Sen in August 1996 had successfully courted the forces in Pailin led by Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, while Ranariddh was sending Nhek Bun Chhay, his top general, to Anlong Veng for talks with former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan.

As time went on, relations between the prime ministers were only worsening, wrote Benny Widyono – the UN’s top representative in Cambodia from April 1994 until May 1997 – in his 2008 book Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge and the United Nations.

In January 1996, Ranariddh held a private meeting of 200 Funcinpec officials in Sihanoukville. There, he unveiled plans to push the CPP to hand over more state positions and agree to early elections before July 1998, allegedly to court the remaining Khmer Rouge forces in Anlong Veng by publicly raising strong anti-Vietnam feelings.

However, Sar Kheng, the CPP interior minister, and brother-in-law of Chea Sim, had already tried to address the complaints by Funcinpec officials, many of whom had sold their belongings to campaign in 1993 and were angered when they did not get positions within the government, according to Widyono.

Shortly after Ranariddh’s blame-stoking conference, Kheng revealed to the press “that he had already submitted a list of district-chief positions to be handed over to FUNCINPEC”, Widyono wrote. It was Kheng’s Funcinpec co-interior minister under the 1993 coalition, You Hockry, who stalled in filling the positions, according to Widyono, allegedly trying to sell them to the highest bidders.

Hun Sen in April 1996 told Widyono during a two-hour meeting at his compound in Takhmao that he had acquired a transcript of Ranariddh’s speech to his party in Sihanoukville in January and was not impressed.

“Hun Sen outlined the prince’s tactical errors in speaking out against the Vietnamese and the CPP and sketched his response to possible outcomes. With his statements, Hun Sen said, Ranariddh had unleashed the extremist forces within his own party,” Widyono wrote.

“Two days after my interview with him, Hun Sen issued a public threat,” he wrote. “In a speech to medical students, he warned that he would have no compunction about using military force against anyone moving to dissolve the National Assembly and the constitution.”

“And I have forces to do it, don’t forget,” Hun Sen said in the speech, according to the diplomat.

At an April 30 meeting of CPP leaders, Hun Sen proposed a strike at Funcinpec’s “machinery” before Anlong Veng forces could strengthen the royalists, or the arrest of Prince Ranariddh for negotiating with the guerillas, according to Brad Adams, who in 1997 was an official at the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh, and who wrote a piece in 2007 marking the 10th anniversary of the fighting.

Yet others in the CPP – barely five years out of the gruelling civil war that followed their 1979 installation by Vietnam after the overthrow of Pol Pot’s regime – were less keen for any military standoff, and then-military commander Ke Kim Yan rebuffed Hun Sen’s demands.

In fact, Hun Sen’s proposal, according to Adams, “was reportedly opposed by most CPP leaders, including Ke Kim Yan, Chea Sim and Sar Kheng. General Pol Saroeun, Kandal Deputy Governor Kun Kim and Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Chea Sophara were reported to support Hun Sen.”

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Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) speaks to General Ke Kim Yan during a ceremony at the Ministry of Defence in 1999. Rob Elliott/AFP

Coup de force
While Ke Kim Yan had the power as military commander to rebuff Hun Sen’s proposals to attack Funcinpec in April 1996, in the background the second prime minister was steadily building up his own personal forces within both the country’s police and the military.

After an attempted July 1994 coup against him from within the CPP – led by former Interior Minister Sin Song and his deputy Sin Sen, who both had deep ties in the National Police – Hun Sen had his loyalist Hok Lundy appointed as National Police chief.

“Until then internal security had been Chea Sim’s domain,” wrote Adams, who is now the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Hok Lundy reported directly to Hun Sen despite the fact that his formal boss was Sar Kheng – a close confidante of Chea Sim and an internal party opponent of Hun Sen.”

Hun Sen was, by the events of 1996, already strengthening his Bodyguard Unit, wrote Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on authoritarian regimes at Australia’s Griffith University, in an academic paper published in the journal Democratization in January this year.

Starting with “around 60 bodyguards in the mid-1990s”, Hun Sen quickly built up his Bodyguard Unit into what is today “a paramilitary architecture equivalent in size to the national militaries of Senegal, Somalia, or Zambia” – not to mention one of the most elite units in Cambodia’s army - Morgenbesser wrote.

In May 1997, Funcinpec’s Nhek Bun Chhay had reportedly come to a deal with Khieu Samphan for the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng to follow Ieng Sary’s Pailin forces to reintegrate into the Cambodian military – but this time allied to the royalists rather than to Hun Sen’s CPP.

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The cover of the Phnom Penh Post in July 1997.

By June 17, 1997, any tensions that had been kept in check the previous year were now boiling over, with a 90-minute firefight breaking out in the middle of the city – on the corner of Norodom Boulevard and Street 200 – between bodyguards of Prince Ranariddh and bodyguards of Hok Lundy. Two of Ranariddh’s bodyguards were killed by the National Police chief’s bodyguards, while a rocket – one of 14 fired during the skirmish – landed in the garden of the US ambassador’s nearby residence.

And in July, when Ranariddh was accused of moving forces out of Anlong Veng with plans to launch his own coup, he did not need the support of the rest of the party – even if Chea Sim, Sar Kheng, Ke Kim Yan and Defence Minister Tea Banh still opposed a battle.

Whether the broader CPP leadership and generals like Kim Yan opposed Hun Sen’s battle plans remains up for debate, but it is widely believed that they did, said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of world affairs and diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“I believe it,” Ear said. “The reason is Ke Kim Yan was alleged to have refused to partake even earlier - back in 1996 when he was told to send the tanks out. When questioned by Hun Sen as to where Ke Kim Yan’s [epaulette] stars came from, Ke Kim Yan allegedly said ‘the King’.”

Yet whatever formal powers then-King Norodom Sihanouk had as the military’s supreme commander-in-chief, Hun Sen by 1997 had enough firepower behind him to defeat Funcinpec alone – thanks in part to his police chief, Hok Lundy, as well as then-Deputy Military Commander Sao Sokha, according to Brad Adams’ account.

“Even without the support of much of his party, Hun Sen was able to put together enough military power to succeed. On July 5-6 his ad hoc forces, led by loyalists including Kun Kim, Mol Roeup, Sao Sokha, Hok Lundy, and Keo Pong, defeated the FUNCINPEC forces,” Adams wrote.

In fact, Hun Sen’s forces won in a rout, setting off a series of violent anti-royalist reprisals.

“In many cases it was clear who carried out these killings. One unit in particular, the ‘911’ parachute regiment under Colonel Chap Pheakadey, was clearly responsible for a series of executions and torture,” he said.

An August 1997 report compiled by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, confirmed at least 41 cases of political executions of Hun Sen’s political opponents, including Interior Ministry Secretary of State Ho Sok, who was shot in the neck inside the ministry.

The findings did not seem to bother Hun Sen – and in a documentary aired on the BBC in November 1997, he told the Welsh journalist Phil Rees as much.

“There are probably no more than 50 people in Cambodia who have read the report. There are 11 million people in Cambodia,” Hun Sen said, smoking a cigarette as he drove an SUV into his Takhmao compound.

“They don’t understand what the human rights report is about,” the premier said, dismissing the report with a laugh. “What the UN says doesn’t bother me. The problem is my people, and whether they support me.”

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Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and royalist Funcinpec party leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh toast an agreement for closer cooperation between their parties in 2001. Philippe Lopez/AFP

Consolidating the forces
Hun Sen often compared himself to the historical figure Sdech Kan, who, like Hun Sen, was a simple peasant and pagoda boy born in the Year of the Dragon – and who joined the Cambodian royal court eight years before usurping the throne in 1512 in an ultimately failed decade-long attempt to start a new dynasty.

Yet Hun Sen’s reign as the supreme leader has lasted far longer than Sdech Kan, with the viciousness of the events 20 years ago only helping him to further cement his rule – both in the country, and within his party.

After the smoke from 1997 had cleared, Hun Sen coaxed Prince Ranariddh back from self-exile to contest, and lose, the July 1998 national elections, and in December of the same year, the CPP-led government was given back its UN General Assembly seat, which had been vacant since September 1997.

Now legitimised as Cambodia’s sole leader, Hun Sen on January 28, 1999, named Ke Kim Yan as commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces – but with two new deputies, Hun Sen loyalists Pol Saroeun, the new chief of the joint staff, and Meas Sophea, who was put in charge of the army – giving the premier control of the infantry, tanks and artillery.

At the appointment ceremony, Hun Sen tasked Kim Yan with ending illegal logging within three months – a tall order – with one military analyst suggesting at the time that Kim Yan’s new deputies’ lack of loyalty showed he was being “set up for the kill”.

By November 1998, Kun Kim, another longtime Hun Sen loyalist who was rumoured to have given the orders to launch the attacks on Funcinpec on July 5, 1997, was added to the list of deputies, drawing the ire of many.

“I have nothing to think about this appointment,” Defence Minister Tea Banh told the Cambodia Daily after the appointment of Kun Kim, who had not served formally in the military for 20 years. “No comment at all. Usually whatever the king does is correct.”

“They say I don’t know how to fight in combat, that’s right,” Kun Kim was quoted as saying in the same article, responding to the claims he was unqualified. “But I know how to kick, and I know how to earn money.”

Kim Yan was removed from the military’s top job on January 22, 2009 – six days before the 10th anniversary of his 1999 promotion ceremony – with Saroeun replacing him as the commander-in-chief. A slew of new loyalists associated with the July 1997 fighting were appointed as deputies.

The new deputies included Moul Roeup, the head of the Military Intelligence Department; Chea Dara, the head of the Tactical Department; Sao Sokha, the head of the National Military Police; and Hing Bun Heang, the head of Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit

Three months later, Kim Yan was placed in charge of the National Authority for Combating Drugs – whose headquarters are inside Kheng’s Interior Ministry compound – where he has served ever since, including leading this year’s six-month drug crackdown.

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Hun Sen (left) shakes hands with Ieng Sary, the leader of a renegade Khmer Rouge faction based in Pailin, in 1996. David Van Der Veen/AFP

Collecting the spoils
The control of the military has also paid dividends within the civilian quarters of the CPP. In 2004, when Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh came to yet another coalition agreement a year after the 2003 national election, political horse-trading was on the agenda.

The two wanted to change the constitution to allow lawmakers to vote in the entire government at once in a “package vote”, believing that such a move would provide the needed support for a coalition government. With King Sihanouk leaving for Pyongyang, Sim became acting head of state, leaving approval up to him.

After refusing to sign off on the constitutional changes, Sim was forcibly escorted to Bangkok by Hun Sen stalwart Lundy and his police forces for “medical reasons”.

Sim was reportedly unhappy that his allies were being cut out of the government as part of the deal so Nhek Bun Chhay, as the deputy president of the Senate, was left to sign off on the deal in his absence, with Prince Ranariddh becoming National Assembly president.

Loyalty to Hun Sen during the mid-1990s turmoil has also served many well in the years since.

When Hok Lundy died in a helicopter crash in 2008, his son, Dy Vichea, married Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana. Vichea was in April 2014 appointed as the director of the Interior Ministry’s Central Security Department, one of the most senior police positions.

Lundy’s successor as National Police chief, Neth Savoeun, meanwhile, is married to the daughter of Hun Neng – the prime minister’s older brother who served as the governor of Kampong Cham province from 1985 until 2013, when he became a CPP lawmaker.

When loyalist Mol Roeup died in 2012, his position as head of military intelligence was first given to his fellow Deputy Commander-in-Chief Chea Dara, before Hun Sen’s middle son, Hun Manith, was appointed to the position in October 2015 by the prime minister.

Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, in 1999 became the first Cambodian to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point and now heads the Defence Ministry’s Counter-Terrorism Department. Hun Sen’s youngest son, Hun Many, was elected as a lawmaker in 2013, and heads the CPP’s youth wing.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) and then-Cambodian People’s Party President Chea Sim share a laugh at CPP headquarters in Phnom Penh. Rob Elliott/AFP

Divided but united
Despite the many upheavals since 1997, few events have so threatened Hun Sen’s power as the disputed July 2013 national election, when Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s united Cambodia National Rescue Party came within seven seats of victory – and then lead months of protests claiming election fraud. To shore up his party’s power, the prime minister once again turned to his loyal security apparatus.

The crackdown began on January 2, 2014, with Chap Pheakadey’s elite 911 paratroopers beating and arresting 23 striking workers and unionists participating in a nationwide strike of garment workers. On January 3, it was Sao Sokha’s Military Police who killed at least five protesting workers on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard, bringing the strikes to a swift end.

The Military Police also surrounded Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on January 4 as scores of thugs carrying crude weapons swarmed CNRP supporters encamped there, violently ending months of peaceful protests. Though the thugs had no uniforms, they were identified by red armbands – the same marker worn by Hun Sen’s troops in 1997.

A year later, then-Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Pa Socheatvong, another Hun Sen loyalist, described the decision to end the months of protests at a Military Police event the following year.

“We discussed among the three of us – that being Sao Sokha, Neth Savoeun and myself – that it was time already, and we could not let it continue. We could not blow the smoke away and had to put out the fire,” Socheatvong said.

“The three of us agreed that I would inform the top levels, and I sent a message immediately, and received a phone call from the leader of the government to take urgent action.”

In contrast, Sar Kheng and his Interior Ministry have often been raised by opposition figures like Sam Rainsy as a symbol of more moderate forces within the CPP. Former Sam Rainsy Party President Kong Korm, a former CPP official himself, even said in May that Kheng could be a deputy prime minister in a CNRP government.

After Hun Sen threatened to arrest opposition leader Kem Sokha last year, Khieu Sopheak, the longtime spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he believed police would use their discretion and not necessarily follow any orders to arrest the CNRP leader.

“My personal point of view is that if [we] arrest Mr Kem Sokha, it will be a loss to the national interest,” Sopheak said on June 3, 2016, explaining that such an arrest could create turmoil if protests broke out. “So what are we arresting him for?”

A month earlier, former CPP Senator Chhang Song had put it more bluntly: “Frankly, I don’t know who is the CPP’s brain nowadays since the death of Chea Sim.”

“Hun Sen seems to be dealing all the CPP cards all by himself, using his corrupt and unprofessional lieutenants and hired hands to handle the most sensitive public relations,” he added.

Indeed, Kun Kim – who backed Hun Sen’s play in 1997 – said that he was prepared himself to arrest Sokha in his capacity as the deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with military helicopters and trucks circling the CNRP’s headquarters, where Sokha was hiding, the following day.

“I am a law enforcer, and the armed forces defend the government. Provided that there are orders, I must enforce, I must defend the government,” Kim said of Hun Sen’s arrest threats in August. “Even . . . if we expend flesh and blood, we must enforce the law.”

Now, 20 years after the events of July, 1997, the CPP is as firmly entrenched as they were before the fighting broke out, while Funcinpec has slowly drifted into irrelevance. The same could be largely said of Hun Sen’s detractors within the CPP who, despite recent occasional glimmers of dissent, have been pushed to the side in favour of Hun Sen and his loyalists over the last two decades.

“It’s important to note that throughout all this infighting, the CPP remained united in its wider desire to crush the opposition, while key rivals continued to be linked by strong personal, family, and patronage links,” said political analyst Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

“Even though certain individuals might have craved more power and status in the party, or disagreed with Hun Sen’s ruthless approach, his subsequent success in crippling opponents and steamrolling elections helped make everyone in the upper echelons rich.”

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