G ENERAL Nhek Bun Chhay, the Funcinpec deputy chief of general staff, a chief negotiator
with the disintegrating Khmer Rouge, and the key source for current news about Pol
Pot, is a near-lifelong soldier who commands respect from his political allies, many
of his troops and even from former KR cadre who have defected on his word.
To political opponents in the CPP he is perhaps Public Enemy No. 1, the leader of
anti-CPP hardliners in the military, a "warlord" responsible for unauthorized
troop movements, the improper arming of people and a "crazy" strategy to
build up Funcipec's military strength.
Among reporters who have flocked to Phnom Penh to follow a tantalizing piece of information
he has passed along, he is known as an often-reliable source who occasionally shoots
from the hip - or a politically motivated manipulator.
As one of two deputy chiefs of staff - the other is CPP Gen Pol Saroeun - Bun Chhay
commands the loyalites of about 40% of the army, not counting defected KR divisions,
according to a western military attaché. His authority is strongest in the
northwest, where he was born in 1956 and spent most of a military career that began
in the ranks of anti-government rebels.
He says he escaped from the Khmer Rouge in1975 and fled to the Thai border between
Phum Malai and Phnom Chatt. "I tried to form the Khmer Sor [White Khmers] by
myself, but it was difficult and dangerous. Sometimes my troops were attacked and
destroyed and we would escape to Thailand and be arrested," he recalls. "These
troops were the main target of the Khmer Rouge."
After the Vietnamese invasion, he says he started his own faction. "In 1979,
I abandoned that movement and started a new one with seven people and two guns,"
he says. "It grew quickly to 150 men and I invited Kong Sileah from France to
give it an official name."
"I first met him in late1979. He was one of the founders of the Molinaka [a
royalist resistance faction Mouvement de Libération Nationale du Kampuchea
founded by Kong Sileah and Nhem Sophonn]. He was a sergeant at the time I think,"
says journalist Jacques Bakaert, who has interviewed Bun Chhay over the course of
nearly 20 years and has chronicled his ascent in his career.
"He rose in the ranks and became a trusted man of [First Prime Minister Prince
Norodom] Ranariddh. By August 1983, he had been promoted to deputy commander for
technical operations for Molinaka," Bakaert says.
A former resistance-movement colleague remembers Bun Chhay as a hard-working young
man. "He only had a high school education, but he was willing to take advice.
We would stay, eat and go into battle together," he recalls.
Bun Chhay developed a reputation for taking an active role in battle, escaping injury
many times. He wore wild boar tusks around his neck in battle for protection. "I
sat under a tree on a patrol in1985 to rest," he recalls. "When one of
my men sat in the exact same place, he set off a mine - killing himself and two others."
That same year, Bun Chhay rose to the rank of Lt Commander of the National Sihanoukist
Army (ANS). He commanded most battles around Tatum near the Thai province of Surin
at the time, according to the colleague, and developed good relations with the KR.
"When we would go deep into the forest to fight against the Vietnamese-controlled
government, he was able to persuade the KR to give us food and ammunition,"
he says. "Particularly from divisions 519, 801 and Front 250."
He believes Bun Chhay was a shoo-in for the senior Funcinpec military post, which
he assumed after the 1993 elections. "We have to work with our counterpart,
so we had to choose the best," he recalls. "He is young, but mature and
he sleeps on the floor."
Born in Ta Ong near Svay Chek in Banteay Meanchey province, Bun Chhay today is a
virtual lord over Northwestern fiefdoms, meting out rewards in a crafty course of
power patronage. He built the authority in part on a reputation for delivering on
"We owe everything to Nhek Bun Chhay," says a former officer of the 5th
division of the Khmer People's Liberation Armed Forces, non-communist fighters who
before the 1993 elections held a relatively unprofitable 26 km malarial stretch of
border north of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey.
Now its leadership has seized control of busy Rte 5 from Poipet to Sisophon from
officers of the former Cambodian Peoples' Armed Forces. "I don't know where
they all went," says the former KPNLAF officer. "But we are happy now."
Some Khmer Rouge defectors speak of him in the same terms. "As long as Bun Chhay
is here we are safe," a 519 division regiment commander told the Post in Banteay
Meanchey last August.
And he draws high praise from fellow Funcinpec powers. Says Interior Ministry Secretary
of State Ho Sok: "If it were not for Ho Sok and General Bun Chhay, Hun Sen could
do anything to Funcinpec - make the rain and the thunder."
At a meeting of Funcinpec government and military officials, several months after
Ranariddh's March 1996 complaint that the CPP had failed to share power, Bun Chhay
is reliably said to have given a stirring performance, declaring that the party should
no longer submit to political or other attacks by the CPP. He, for one, was prepared
to fight and to die, he reportedly said.
Such partisanship, not surprisingly, has put Bun Chhay at the top of the list of
Funcinpec "militants" that CPP officials are privately - and sometimes
publicly - scathing about.
"The Funcinpec military is divided into two: the hardliners [against CPP], they
are maybe 25 percent," said a CPP source last week. Asked who controlled the
hardliners, he listed eight Funcinpec officials. Bun Chhay's name was first.
CPP officials say Bun Chhay has been behind a strategy to boost Funcinpec's military
strength to even up the balance of power.
"There are only two people crazy enough to believe that this is the right strategy
and do it - Nhek Bun Chhay and Ho Sok," said one senior CPP official last year,
labelling the pair as "warlords" and "militants."
CPP blames Bun Chhay in part for the Funcinpec-CPP clashes in Battambang earlier
this year. Most recently, there have been allegations about so-called "underground
Khmer Rouge" who CPP officials allege are being housed at Taing Krasaing, a
Funcinpec military base under Bun Chhay's control.
Around May 1996, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen is widely believed by sources in both
parties to have sought the arrest of Bun Chhay, one of several Funcinpec military
officials Hun Sen has privately accused of "failing to engage the enemy"
- the KR - in the ill-fated dry season offensive against the guerrillas.
The arrest did not occur, reportedly because CPP military officials knew any such
move on Bun Chhay would spark a major armed confrontation, which they were not prepared
Journalists who deal with Bun Chhay frequently see a mercurial figure. As senior
military leader of Funcinpec, he is a much-sought source who seldom says "no
comment." With a statement, he can plant the seed to bring swarms of journalists
from the far reaches of the world. He is not loathe to speculate, mixing fact with
prediction - some of which doesn't come true.
He predicted the defections of KR divisions in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey in
mid-August last year and gave accounts of events leading up to the split. He gave
details and dates of meetings and armed skirmishes between hard-line and renegade
forces - denied and later confirmed by breakaway forces - which were exact to the
date and time.
On the other hand, he told reporters last Nov 21 that deminers Christopher Howes
and Houn Huorth were fleeing hard-line KR forces with 151 defectors and would be
in a government-held zone the following day. "He is currently about 20 km north
of Stoeung in Kompong Thom ... He is well, but very thin," Bun Chhay told reporters.
"They treated him well, but they made him work during the day and locked him
up during the night." He added that Howes had been made to teach KR troops how
to make improvised mines.
He could not comment on Nov 26 why Howes did not arrive as predicted, but maintains
to this day that the Mines Advisory Group technical assistant and his interpreter
are still alive.
Journalist Bekaert, with a long professional relationship with Bun Chhay, says: "I
think he is a usually relatively reliable source"
Like many reporters, though, Bekaert wonders about Bun Chhay's reports of a decrepit
Pol Pot sitting in a house near Anlong Veng - the account that has Cambodia brimful
with the international press and their stories on Page 1 around the world.
"I think it is strange that there are no pictures. It is such a big prize -
Pol Pot - there would be pictures. They have pictures of Son Sen," Bekaert says.
"Even if somebody is not a journalist, they would make some record, especially
if the whole world is taking it seriously," Bekaert says, adding: ""He
is not a compulsive liar, but he may be involved in something."
A locally based news photographer put it more bluntly: "We have been busy, but
the story is Pol Pot and the pictures are not."
"Nhek Bun Chhay is potentially the most unreliable source in Cambodia,"
charges a wire-service reporter. "I don't know if it is because he is simply
misled or is intentionally lying."
Says another: "He's dodgy. He gets the facts, but releases things strategically."
For sure, stories about Bun Chhay portray a man willing to do what he has to do.
A car importer remembers Bun Chhay surprising him with an order for vehicles. "He
didn't ask for a commission," the supplier says. "He said he wanted the
most vehicles for the best price."
But problems arose when a (CPP) military police unit seized the shipment in the capital.
"He asked me to come along with the paperwork and I was shocked when the armored-personnel
carrier we were following crashed through the gate of the compound and the MPs took
up fighting positions."
The fleet was released after brief discussions.