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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Security jitters while PMs away

Security jitters while PMs away

T HE absence of much of the country's leadership while attending ICORC in Paris

earlier this month set of a chain of events that reflects the deep distrust that

remains between the three primary factions within the government and officials'

jitters about activities of critics outside the government.

While life in

the city remained normal and serene on the surface last week, behind the scenes

various political power blocs were on the alert for perceived enemies. Rumors

swept government military and intelligence circles of possible demonstrations,

coup attempts, prison breakouts, and palace intrigue in the absence of the two

prime ministers.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen left Cambodia to join

First Prime Minister Ranariddh in Paris on Mar 10, making it the first time both

prime ministers had been absent from the country at the same time since last

August, in the wake of July's aborted coup attempt.

Last August, the two

prime ministers insisted at the last minute that Co-Deputy Prime Minister and

Interior Minister Sar Kheng accompany them on their state visit to Malaysia,

afraid to leave him in Phnom Penh, according to government and diplomatic

sources. In his capacity as co-deputy prime minister, Sar Kheng shares the role

of head of government with Co-Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Kiet in the absence of

the prime ministers.

But this time, the Prime Ministers neglected to sign

the documents formally transferring authority in their absence. Diplomats and

government sources say that for 24 hours until March 11 there was no one

formally in power in Cambodia until the leaders were tracked down in France and

convinced to sign the papers. Meanwhile, Hun Sen ordered his secret police to

monitor closely the telephone conversations, movements and meetings of Sar Kheng

while the second prime minister was overseas, according to senior government

sources.

On Saturday, March 11, Sar Kheng dispatched "several hundred"

security personnel on high alert to monitor "unusual movements around the city

by military because of rumors of demonstrations or coup attempts," according to

sources close to him.

In separate events, the military was put on alert

and large numbers of troops were dispatched by different political leaders-often

without informing or coordinating with each other-in preparations to put down

possible disturbances.

Co-Defense Minister Tea Chamrath on March 22

denied that there was any unusual military activity. "There are no troop

movements, everything is normal," he told the Post, saying that there was no

increased state of alert. But several other senior officers confirmed a "state

of alert, precautionary measures because of rumors of

demonstrations."

Sar Kheng was not informed of hundreds of provincial

based forces loyal to Hun Sen who were secretly brought in from the provinces on

Sunday, March 12 and remained stationed at press time on key roads on the

outskirts of Phnom Penh waiting for orders to enter the city in case of

disturbances.

"We were ordered to come here to protect against a possible

coup attempt by the CPP," said one soldier interviewed by the Post in a

frightened whisper, saying his commander had ordered absolute secrecy of their

mission. His unit of 300 was brought from Kompong Cham and stationed at a pagoda

12 kilometers north of Phnom Penh in Bak Kheng village. "We were told that if

nothing happens in two weeks we will go back, but there might be another

time."

As well 300 "special troops" brought in from Kampot are located on

Route 3 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh for similar purposes, said a senior

military general. "They are the troops of the second prime minister," he said.

Other similar strike forces are located on other major routes entering the city,

say military and diplomatic sources, but no clear figure of exactly how many

could be confirmed.

Senior Hun Sen loyalists in the military insist they

had strong evidence that a demonstration was scheduled for Thursday, March 16 by

"military personnel, intellectuals, and students. Their slogans were the

necessity of national reconciliation, support of the King, and oppose

corruption," according to a senior diplomat with close ties to the CPP. Hun Sen

loyalists inside the military assured diplomats: "The CPP is fully aware of the

situation and it is completely under control. Nothing will happen."

"We

were told there was a plan for demonstrations or coups against the government so

that is why there are troop movements," said a perplexed senior diplomat, "but

maybe the main reason is simple distrust among the factions in the

leadership."

On Tuesday, March 14, CPP strongman Chea Sim requested an

audience with the King and informed him of possible coup attempts in the making.

One source quoted Chea Sim as telling King Sihanouk, "According to the rumor

there will be a coup and this coup will come from the Royal palace. But, of

course, we don't believe you are involved."

Said a diplomat close to the

CPP: "The meaning of Chea Sim's visit to King Sihanouk was: 'If you dare do

something, the reaction will be very strong.'"

Within 48 hours Sihanouk

abruptly announced that he would be departing for Beijing for medical reasons,

citing test results from doctors at the Pasteur Institute that required follow

up by Chinese doctors. But sources close to the King acknowledge that "The King

is not happy that people are using his name. He is accused of joining Sam Rainsy

or Son Sann or trying to make a coup. He doesn't want to be forced to be

involved or be seen as a mastermind." The Kind departed for Beijing March

22.

At the same time rumors of an attempted prison breakout of convicted

coup plotter Sin Sen from Phnom Penh's T-3 jail led to secret police cordoning

off the jail on March 16 and reinforcements sent to beef up prison security,

ordered by Funcinpec Co-Minister of Interior You Hokry. Sources close to Sar

Kheng say that he was not informed of the security reinforcements at T-3 until

afterwards. "You Hokry ordered Funcinpec men to be on alert," said a senior

government source close to You Hokry, "He does not trust Sar Kheng or Hun Sen-so

he ordered his own troops to be on alert, not just T-3 but all over the city.

You Hokry has no confidence in anyone, that is clear."

According to

sources close to You Hokry, he received intelligence around March 13 that guards

at T-3 were "preparing to look the other way" as an attempt would be made to

breakout Sin sen. You Hokry dispatched 40 additional plainclothes guards on

March 16, bringing to a total of 90 the number of guards at the prison by the

end of the week. Roads around T-3 were blocked to traffic, and undercover

security patrols remained heavy at press time. All visits by family and doctors

were suspended to Sin Sen, according to prison officials. You Hokry acknowledged

the increased security at T-3, when contacted by the Post on March 22, but

deemed it a "routine precaution. It is normal," he said.

The last time

Hun Sen was in Paris in August for medical treatment, accused Sin Sen coup

collaborator Sin Song escaped from prison under circumstances that strongly

suggest official assistance from sectors of the government, government and

diplomatic sources agree.

What lies as a backdrop to all these high level

official jitters are persistent intelligence reports that there may be further

disturbances, including Khmer Rouge terrorist attacks, in Phnom Penh around the

Khmer New Year and 20th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge victory in mid-April.

Rumors of secretly planned demonstrations that openly confront the government

and call for a return to power of the King abound.

Government

intelligence sources say they have firm evidence that the Khmer Rouge have

infiltrated explosives and special units into Phnom Penh in recent weeks for

such a purpose. "We know that the Khmer Rouge have smuggled at least two 107

rockets from Kompong Thom, but we lost track of them outside of Phnom Penh. We

do not know where they are now," said a senior government official.

One

Hundred seven mm rocket launchers are a portable weapon with a firing range of

seven kilometers, and officials fear that the rebels may fire them into the

city, according to sources.

But even many of the senior government

sources say that in fact there is little hard evidence that disturbances are

planned. "The one thing that is sure is that nobody trusts each other. That is

very clear," said one senior government official.

Other officials say

that the insistence that antigovernment activity is imminent may be just pretext

to use to crackdown on dissent within the government which has greatly angered

senior officials in recent months. "It's like they're preparing public opinion,"

said an official in reference to official intelligence of demonstrations or

Khmer Rouge terrorism. "These rumors of manifestations are mainly rumors with no

substance when you look behind each one. They may be creating an atmosphere to

use it as a pretext to crackdown." He cited the constitutional allowance for the

prime ministers to "declare a state of emergency" in the case of civil

unrest.

Human rights officials say that the prime ministers' call to shut

down the UN Center for Human Rights, the numerous censures of opposition press

in recent months, and the legal preparations by the government to charge

maverick MP Sam Rainsy with what amounts to treason, are the beginning of an

official effort to put an end to criticism of the government that leaders say

undermines its image at home and abroad as a democratic country.

On the

night of March 22, 15 armed men from the government's Bodyguard Protection Unit

came to Rainsy's house and ordered Rainsy's bodyguards to return to their

barracks. Interior Minister You Hokry confirmed later that night that the move

was an official order. "It is not the job of the government to protect MPs," he

said.

The bodyguards were the same personnel who had protected Rainsy

before he was sacked last September as finance minister.

Senior

government officials say it is part of an officially sanctioned campaign of

intimidation that has been ordered by senior officials to begin against Rainsy

with the objective of frightening him to silence his criticism or leave the

country. "There will be a show of force. Rainsy is in big trouble, real danger,"

said the official, with close ties to the government security apparatus. "They

will at first only try to frighten him and his wife. But they will do whatever

is necessary to stop him in the end."

The official said that the

strategy, led by the second Prime Minister Hun Sen, is based on the theory that

if Rainsy is allowed to succeed in his criticism it may give ammunition to other

government critics, many now frightened into silence, to speak out. "If Rainsy

is allowed to win, other MPs could view him as a martyr. Then other voices will

be raised. It is unacceptable to allow the National Assembly to become a real

democratic institution. The two PMs must maintain control over the National

assemble [and] not allow it to be an independent force."

Prime Minister

Ranariddh said last week that "I am sorry Sam Rainsy was finance minister. I am

sorry he is in Funcinpec. I am sorry he is a Khmer."

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