JUST after Second Prime Minister Hun Sen completed a two hour press conference at
his Toul Kraseng compound south of Takhmau Apr 19, where he announced the names of
Funcinpec MPs who had joined Ung Phan, one Cambodian who has monitored political
developments for more than three decades walked out of the hall and whispered to
an acquaintance "There's going to be war."
This sentiment that fighting between coalition members was imminent in the last two
weeks was not unique. Prince Norodom Sirivudh's attempt to return home Apr 15 and
its aftermath sent shivers through all of Phnom Penh which resulted in rice hoarding,
embassy security meetings, an increase in foreign remittances and panic gold buying.
As coup rumors spread through the capital like wildfire, fueled by statements made
by members of both ruling parties, and troops went on alert at various locations
around town, diplomats, defense analysts and political pundits wondered about who
might fire the first shot and which armed units would lead the charge.
While the consensus seems to be that the latest in a long series of political crises
is not about to boil over into open warfare and that, for the time being, the troops
will remain in their barracks, there is also widespread agreement that the coalition
government will square off once again at some point down the road.
"Crisis-Control-Lull-Crisis," is how one analyst described the cycles of
political friction among the government partners. So if the latest "Crisis"
has now been put under "Control" with a "Lull" ahead (perhaps
long enough to get the Kingdom admitted into ASEAN and through the Donor's Consultative
Group meeting in Paris in July), the question still remains as to what the next "Crisis"
will look like and, when (not if) it happens, will the guns get used?
Analysts say that if any fighting starts in Phnom Penh it is likely to involve the
personal bodyguard units of the two Prime Ministers, both of which report directly
to their respective premiers and are outside the normal Royal Cambodian Armed Forces
Initially, at least, its believed that RCAF main force units will remain neutral,
but for how long is anyone's guess.
Hun Sen gave the entire Phnom Penh-based press corps their first close look at his
Toul Kraseng compound and personal military muscle Apr 19. Often referred to as the
"Tiger's Den", the enclosed, heavily-defended complex looks like one of
the largest military bases in the country, encompassing an area of about one square
Elevated guard posts manned by troops in full combat gear with machine guns are spaced
along the outer walls. Some of the soldiers in the compound had patches on their
sleeves with "Hun Sen Body Guard" in English on them.
Outside the hall where the press conference was held, 20 eight-wheeled, Russian-made,
military trucks were parked in tight order. Most of them looked new. Six others with
artillery pieces attached to the rear were parked nearby.
Across an open parade ground were six tanks and 10 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs)
lined up under an open air garage. Further back was a helipad with an Mi-26 helicopter
painted in camouflage colors sitting on it. Two antennas, one of which was over 80
meters in height, could be seen in the distance indicating that the compound had
ample communications equipment to keep in touch with the entire country.
An aide to Hun Sen said that one battalion, or 600-800 troops were based in the compound,
referring to them as a "Rapid Intervention Force". He added that the compound
had its own water supply, pumping equipment and even a rice field.
Diplomats who met with Hun Sen at the compound Apr 25 say that the numbers are probably
higher, perhaps in the 1000-1400 range, and that there was enough equipment for two
battalions, one of which would be an armored unit.
Hun Sen has another bodyguard unit based behind his house in Phnom Penh near the
Independence Monument. While the premier rarely stays at the residence, the troops
- numbering around 100-150 - are stationed there permanently in what is referred
to as "the CPP compound". They are equipped with at least two APCs. Hun
Sen's house also has a helipad on top of the back annex.
Technically the bodyguard units are part of 70th Brigade which is officially based
on the road to Takeo past Pochentong airport. The unit was inaugurated in October
1994 and designed to protect the country's leadership. Military analysts say that
the base has about 300-400 soldiers, five tanks and several APCs. It is also believed
that the forces there report directly to Hun Sen.
Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh has his own bodyguard unit, the bulk of which is
based at Tang Krasang, a military compound just beyond the entrance to Pochentong
Airport on the opposite side of the road, several hundred meters back from the highway.
Estimates on the numbers of soldiers there vary from 300 to around 900.
Where the troops came from is also not known precisely. One source said that the
unit is comprised of recent "urban defectors" who were allegedly underground
Khmer Rouge cadres waiting for orders from Pol Pot but who decided to defect to the
government. A second source says that they were drawn from Division 3 in Siem Reap
province which included Khmer Rouge defectors who joined the government in the first
round of defections in 1994, while a third source said that the bodyguards were drawn
from former ANKI units who had been demobilized several years ago.
What analysts do agree on is that Ranariddh and his Funcinpec generals realized that
they needed some level of military force to offset that of Hun Sen's, and that the
growth in the size of the bodyguard unit in recent months is a reflection of this
Beyond Tang Krasang, Ranariddh has troops on the military side of Pochentong, where
three tanks and three APCs are based, as well as smaller bodyguard units based permanently
at his residence on St. 214 and at the home of General Nhek Bun Chhay. These latter
units may comprise 200 to 250 soldiers in total.
Overall, the bodyguard units of both prime ministers are better and more regularly
paid than RCAF troops. Data on where the funds come from or what amounts are required
to pay these forces is unavailable.
While all the right things have been said about mainline RCAF soldiers and police
remaining calm and neutral, the issue of who would fight for or against whom if so
ordered is further complicated by the existence of units with well-defined historical
For example, the Gendamerie - or "military police" as they are sometimes
referred to - now has about 7,000 well-armed soldiers with jeeps and trucks spread
out in almost every province. Created with support from the French government, they
were set up in theory to provide a separate police force with powers to arrest both
civilians and military. While on the payroll of the Ministry of Defense, they have
a channel of command which by-passes the Chiefs of Staff, reporting directly to the
co-Prime Ministers. However, the senior officer in charge of the Gendamerie is Kieng
Savuth, who is a known Hun Sen loyalist. How these troops would respond in a crisis
is a question that can only be guessed at.
As well, human rights workers speculate that there exists a number of secret military
and police units loyal to the CPP. During UNTAC a number of such units - known as
"A" groups - were well-documented as being responsible for political intimidation
directed against both the BLDP and Funcinpec. The exact number and status of these
groups at present can not be determined.
Defense analysts say that there are about 10,000 military officers and soldiers in
Phnom Penh, which includes 3,000 on the General Staff, another 3,000 in the Ministry
of Defense and others at the headquarters for the Special Forces, the Navy and the
Air Force. The question is how long would all these people remain neutral in the
event of an armed clash? Several Cambodians were asked this question. They hesitated,
laughed and said "about five minutes."
In any event, military observers say that considering the strength of the respective
bodyguard units, it would not be easy for either side to overcome the other. Given
this, the powers that be would not be inclined to take any military action that would
result in prolonged conflict with heavy losses.
"The use of military force is a lose/lose situation," said one military
observer, "so any intelligent analysis leaves only political options."
Other observers fear that, as long as there are large bodyguard units loyal to one
party or the other, the potential for confrontation is there.
Kem Sokha, a BLDP MP and chairman of the National Assembly commission on human rights,
urged greater regulation of the PMs' bodyguards and their weapons. "If you want
military forces to be neutral, the Prime Ministers need to be neutral themselves,
and especially their personal armies, their bodyguards."