T HEY are on the side of the road. Groups of three or four soldiers gather under shelter
on both sides of Pochentong road. They have AK47s and rocket launchers. The groups
are spread out every 100 meters. The soldiers have tied a red ribbon on their shoulders.
Saturday morning, special unit soldiers and military police were taking up positions.
But at that time few noticed their presence and few thought it was the beginning
of the 48-hour CPP military action against Funcinpec that many were calling a coup
Few believed that the incident that took place at Wat Phnead was the beginning. In
the pagoda, CPP paratroopers surrounded a small base that was supposed to be controlled
by Funcinpec. About 140 men were arrested and disarmed.
Around 10:30am, heavy artillery started targeting the Funcinpec base of Tang Krasang.
The shelling lasted more than one hour and then the silence returned. During the
fighting, nervous soldiers apparently loyal to Funcinpec closed the road to Tang
Krasang. Down the road at the corner between the base and the railroad track a tank
was posted to protect the base.
The military police took positions at strategic points to block any reinforcements
that might try to help the Funcinpec soldiers.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was clear in his speech at midday. He said he launched
the offensive against the rebels and the "irregular forces"
All the streets around Nhek Bun Chhay's house had been closed and occupied by CPP
forces. Funcinpec troops were ready, nervously ready.
Traveling the streets between Okhna Peah, Kampuchea Krom and near the ring road,
one could feel the tension. Armed personnel carriers were parked at the corners,
between the side roads, and the troops were waiting anxiously, looking at each other
as if a storm was about to strike
At the corner between Pochentong and Mao Tse Tung, military police were frantically
talking on the radio.
Then the storm struck.
At 3, the diplomatic corps was gathered at the council of ministers to be warned.
As the Minister of Defense was trying to ensure that the situation was under control,
heavy artillery fire started a few kilometers from away.
The targets were clear. Deputy General Chief of Staff Nhek Bun Chhay's house, Chau
Sambath's house, the Tang Krasang base.
The artillery started firing at the houses and the base. The dark smoke of a fire
columned up west of the town. Residents of those areas ran away carrying a pot, a
small bag, a television. Some were empty-handed.
They fled on foot, on bicycles, on motos and cyclos.
The roads were blocked around the CPP compound.
At the end of the day on Saturday, the positions of the forces were still unclear.
Rumors that Chao Sambath's house was being captured spread.
At 5:30am Sunday, shelling began as the first light appeared over the Tonle Sap river.
Phnom Penh woke up to the sounds of battles in the west.
Early morning shelling came closer into the city. There were more targets than the
day before. First Prime Minister's Norodom Ranariddh's house and Funcinpec headquarters
had been added to the list of places to be taken.
People stormed the markets, buying rice, water and fish. Two hours after dawn most
of the shops had shut. Lines of cars and motos at the few open gas stations grew
longer. Refugees trudged south down Monivong, heading for safety. The sounds of battle
continued from the west part of town.
The Hotel Intercontinental was on the border, the last safe haven before the front
line. Surrounded by 150 protection forces provided by the military police, the hotel
was not hit by the chaos outside. Luxury service continued inside, with the sounds
of shelling mixing with the ambient music.
Most of the inhabitants had abandoned the area between Mao Tse Tung Blvd, Stung Meanchey
road and Kampuchea Krom. From the top of the hotel, one could observe the battlefields.
The sound of tank fire thudded through the city.
Through the morning, the fighting was more furious at the junction of Kampuchea Krom
and Pochentong road, opposite the university. Funcinpec forces were trying to advance
toward the town.
According to a military observer, there was not one big front line. Funcinpec had
three tanks and 300 men. "Nhek Bun Chhay realized that it was a very bad position.
So he started two months ago to move troops out [of the base]. Troops with weapons
were moved to hotels and houses in town."
Late Sunday morning, there was shooting toward Tuol Kork. The troops around Tea Banh's
house became nervous.
By the edge of the roads, special forces of Hun Sen's body guards took shelter behind
the walls. Four APCs were on a line, ready to move forward. Military police manned
"We are 500. We received the order to move this morning," one of the bodyguards
said in English. His chief passed and told him to shut up. The young soldier was
shaking and smoking nervously, telling stories of the days when he danced with the
Khmer Rouge in Pailin, when Ieng Sary broke away.
The day was dominated by the sounds of shelling. Monivong was virtually empty; so
was Mao Tse Tung. A few motos puttered about. In the shuttered shops, people waited.
At 2:30pm Funcinpec headquarters fell after a strong offensive of B40 rockets. One
burst into the office of the French ambassador, whose windows overlook the Funcinpec
No prisoners were seen after the attack ended.
5:30pm, Ranariddh's residence fell. Eyewitnesses said the bodyguards emerged from
the house carrying white signs. They were disarmed and authorized to go home. Members
of the cabinet escaped by digging a hole in the wall between the residence and the
Singapore Ambassador's house.
Only one target remained at the end of the day: Tang Krasang, Nhek Bun Chhay's stronghold.
Rumors spread of troops coming from the North to help out the Funcinpec warlord.
A military observer said afterward that the troops in the camp were "just young
Cambodian males with weapons in their hands."
With dark coming, the shelling grew more sporadic. By night the roads emptied of
soldiers. Hun Sen said over the radio that he controlled the situation and that people
should go back to work the next day. The town was quiet. The police action was finished.
At dawn on Monday, no shelling woke up Phnom Penh. One shot was heard at 6 and then
no more. In Tang Krasang, the winners opened the gates of the camp emptied of Funcinpec
Colonel Duong Sary, from the CPP Division 70 which led the attack on Tang Krasang,
told the South China Morning Post that Bun Chhay had been overheard on ICOM radio
trying to arrange a helicopter.
"But he was unable to get one because there were too many CPP soldiers in the
area," Sary said.
"He is wounded. I think he will try to go to Banteay Meanchey. In the future,
if we cannot arrest him, war could happen."
Near the camp, two old women and four younger ones talked about the shells which
had rained over their house.
Asked how many shells there were, one old lady said "Charan, Charan. I don't
know, I was hiding, everybody was crying.
"CPP soldiers were everywhere, everywhere. Anyway they could, they came here
from all directions."
At the back of their house, the six women had dug a hole - no more than 1 by 2 meters,
and crouched in it, under a piece of wood and a piece of corrugated iron, for two
days. Asked what they did, one said she prayed a lot.
The woman could again walk under the sky without having to hide in her bunker. The
noise was over, the town quiet and the looting could start.