As the smoke cleared in Phnom Penh on this day 20 years ago, following swift and decisive military action that cemented power in the hands of current Prime Minister Hun Sen, the violence was far from over for Cambodia’s foot soldiers.
Van Lon, 62, remembers the fighting that reverberated across the countryside months after the fateful July weekend.
In Battambang’s Ta Sanh commune, Lon sits with his arms resting in a hammock and one leg dangling from a flat wooden bed. His other leg is amputated high above the knee; a phantom limb for the past 20 years.
A staunch Khmer Rouge supporter since he became a child soldier for the communist armed forces at the age of 12, Lon saw the 1997 violence as a visceral betrayal by the very people he had fought alongside for decades.
“I was injured on July 5 or 6 because of my own Khmer Rouge comrades, who joined with the inside [Cambodian People’s Party] government. The government had ordered [them to attack],” Lon said.
Many Khmer Rouge soldiers, he said, had switched their allegiances to rival factions of the government: Funcinpec, under then-first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Military Commander Nhek Bun Chhay; and the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen.
At the Thai border, Lon and other soldiers were stuffing supplies into a car when the explosive struck. To this day, he doesn’t know the type of artillery that robbed him of his left leg. He woke up in a Thai hospital 20 days later.
Whether the events of July 5 and 6 constituted a coup d’état is still a heated topic. Just yesterday, Defence Ministry spokesman General Chum Socheat insisted the action was not a coup to overthrow Funcinpec – the winner of the 1993 elections and the senior party in an uneasy coalition with the CPP – but rather a “historic lesson”.
“The 5-6 July event in 1997 was not a coup! But it was the crack down on the Khmer Rouge’s anarchic force who illegally transported illegal arms and weapons into Phnom Penh to create insecurity and cause chaos in the county,” Socheat said in a message.
Indeed, in the lead-up to the fighting, Hun Sen had accused Funcinpec of illegally importing weapons through Sihanoukville and of courting Khmer Rouge factions, practices that observers at the time noted were not unique to either party.
For Lon, there’s truth to the rationale that the CPP wanted to quash the Khmer Rouge, though to him, that was not the sole motive.
“The coup was because Ranariddh won the election, while the [CPP] was not happy with him, so it tried any tricks [and] staged the coup in order to run the country,” he said.
“The government’s goal was not only to kill para [Funcinpec] soldiers, but its other priority was to terminate the Khmer Rouge . . . The government saw the Khmer Rouge as a bone in its throat.”
Whatever the CPP’s motivations, the result was a coup in all but name – Ranariddh was ousted, Hun Sen consolidated power and the Khmer Rouge’s last holdouts were reintegrated into government forces the following year.
Like Lon, Thab Tha, 49, lost a limb 20 years ago, though he was fighting on the CPP side against Funcinpec.
Speaking this week from his home in Thma Puok commune – the only location to defy both major parties at the recent commune elections and vote in Bun Chhay’s Khmer National United Party – Tha said he was in Kampong Speu when violence erupted in Phnom Penh.
Hearing Ranariddh had “fled” – flying to France before the fighting commenced – Tha travelled to Banteay Meanchey on July 7, where the leaders of his unit had joined forces with the CPP.
“I did it on behalf of the military. We must follow the orders and our commander,” Tha said. “We were fighting against the extremist Nhek Bun Chhay.”
On the Thai border in February of 1998, Tha stepped on a landmine, resulting in the amputation of his right leg.
But for Tha, details of the events 20 years ago are best left unspoken.
“We should not talk about the past, because this is about national security and we should not remember it. Somehow we have peace now,” he said.
A former police officer and fighter for Funcinpec, Keo Mean, 57, said he was now disillusioned by the party he went to such great lengths to support in 1997.
“I am fed up with Funcinpec,” he said. Mean retired from public life in 2015 after switching his support to the opposition.
After the Funcinpec resistance fighters were brought back into the government fold following Ranariddh’s ouster, Mean said he was promised a plum job, only to see it given to a relative of Bun Chhay instead.
“While I had struggled and fought, I got only three stripes, while other useless people got the stars,” he said, alleging other soldiers were promoted above him in exchange for cash.
After Ranariddh’s Phnom Penh residence was captured, Mean and other bodyguards collected coconuts from the garbage and cut them open to eat their skins, and were reduced to salvaging metal to make a living.
In the months following the coup, Mean fought in Banteay Meanchey, including west of Thma Puok commune to divert CPP attacks from O’Smach at the border. He recalled smuggling bullets – hidden in boxes beneath bottles of wine – on makeshift trucks. Sometimes they were carried under cover of nightfall, and sometimes with the assistance of their CPP “enemies”.
One night they came across two CPP tanks. Mean remembers getting the drivers drunk, then, with 50 armed men, pointing guns to their heads and ordering them to surrender their tanks. The drivers fled into the forest and the tanks were driven towards the Dangrek Mountains, where Bun Chhay was stationed. En route, however, the tanks became bogged down in the mud, and were abandoned and burned.
Bun Chhay’s mountain stronghold was the secret to staving off defeat, Mean said.
“Because it was on the mountain, when it was attacked . . . when they used a big cannon . . . it spilled over into Thailand,” he said. “Without Thailand located behind, it would take only one day to destroy their location.”
Funcinpec was swiftly defeated in Phnom Penh, he said, because Khmer Rouge soldiers who backed the party there were unfamiliar with the terrain.
Civilian and motodop Chan Try, 52, recalled the fear that gripped Phnom Penh on the weekend of the fighting.
“I went to pick up relatives who worked in a factory, and we stayed there until the fighting finished,” Try said.
“We did not dare to come out . . . We heard the gunshots and explosions . . . We were scared.”
Crowds of people spilled onto the street, carrying their belongings in their arms and heading for their home provinces. Frightened residents were willing to pay 50,000 or 100,000 riel ($12.50 or $25) to travel even a short distance, if they could find a willing driver. But many refused, fearing they would be killed in the crossfire.
Louch Chany, a former border police officer and motodop, said he was able to profit from the chaos – until he heard his rental home was on fire, with his wife and children still inside. “I started to go in to take my wife and children out the house, but police and soldiers told me not to go in there because I would face danger,” he said.
Nonetheless, Chany said he entered the burning building and took his family to Takeo. “All our belongings that we kept with the owner of the house were completely burned down,” he said.
Aligned with the CPP, Chany was prepared to fight against Bun Chhay near the border but was ultimately not called up. Today, he too thinks the motivations for clashes had more to do with power than national security.
“This is a political game of the top leaders . . . Before people did not pay attention to the political situation like they do now,” he said. “Now they see through social media and Facebook.”
For former Khmer Rouge soldier Lon, the prospect of another conflict breaking out – particularly if the opposition was to win the election, as Hun Sen has frequently warned – was neither likely nor desirable.
“We are sick and tired of war. We are scared of war because we were not only losing our lives, but we were also injured, we lost our natural territory and our forests face destruction,” he said.
For motodop Try, the memory of ricocheting bullets 20 years ago was something he never wants repeated.
“We do not want war to happen again. People will die.”