​'Coup' plot thickens | Phnom Penh Post

'Coup' plot thickens


Publication date
15 July 1994 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Nate Thayer

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T WO weeks after factions in the government stifled an alleged coup plot

involving-at the least-powerful elements of the security forces, jittery leaders

are privately accusing each other of betrayal and internal power plays, rocking

the already fragile coalition government.

While more questions were

raised than answered by the government's explanation for the coup bid, the move

has forced to the surface simmering tensions within the


While the government leadership remains intact on paper,

the aftermath of the coup has exposed a traumatic-and dangerous-split in the

Cambodian People's Party-the dominant factions within the coalition.


comes weeks after a public split within Funcinpec, the other main partner in the


While several senior officials of the CPP connected to the

powerful Interior Ministry have been arrested or accused, it is accepted by

diplomats and senior government officials from both parties that a much larger

story of skullduggery, backstabbing, and Machiavellian politics between senior

political figures lies at the root of the affair.

Some believe the coup

attempt had a three-fold objective, firstly against Funcinpec, secondly against

the King's recent initiative to assume temporary authority, thirdly, perhaps,

against CPP Co-Prime Minister Hun Sen.

According to this theory, this was

a conspiracy to consolidate control over the government by powerful factions

within the CPP allied to the CPP tightly-controlled security services and Sar


Others were convinced that Hun Sen organized a fake coup plot to

undermine the growing power of his CPP colleagues, who he feared were seizing

real control over the state and party at his expense.

What is apparent is

that the events were, as a senior Party official said, "an internal CPP


While confirmed facts are scarce and rumors and speculation

abound, the events appeared to evolve sometime around 1 pm on Saturday, July


It was then that Secretary of State for Defense Chhay Sung Yung

approached the chief of the military court with an order to arrest three senior

generals of the Defense Ministry-Gen Pan Thai, Gen Nyek Bun Chay, and Gen Kreuch

Yeum. The military court official was skeptical that the order had real

authority and informed Hun Sen, who then ordered Chan Sung Yung to his

residence. All three generals were from non-CPP former resistance factions who

controlled significant troops in the new integrated army that emerged after


The objective of the arrests was to prevent army-which is not

under the full control of the CPP-from mobilizing opposition to the coup makers.

The men alleged to be coup plotters by the government are mostly associated with

the CPP-controlled security apparatus from the Ministry of Interior and the army

appeared to play only a minor role in the affair.

The failure of the

attempt to arrest the three generals began the unraveling of the plot, with

details provided by Chhay Sung Yung's confession.

He is said to have

implicated Sin Song and Prince Chakropong in the plot, before Hun Sen allowed

him-inexplicably-to leave, whereupon he fled to Vietnam.

At 5 pm on July

2, 12 armored personnel carriers and under 300 troops, said to be loyal to Sin

Song, left the eastern province of Prey Veng and headed for the capital to

launch a coup against the government.

Hun Sen consulted Minister of

Justice Chem Sngoun, who said despite Gen Chay Sung Yung having fingered Sin

Song, there were insufficient grounds to arrest the former National Security


But once the movement of troops had been confirmed, the arrest

order was approved.

According to several sources, Hun Sen failed to

notify Co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh until 5 pm or his Minister of

Interior Sar Kheng until 6 pm-hours after the alleged coup bid


Importantly, Sar Kheng, who as Interior Minister ultimately controls

the important secret police and security forces, was not informed of the coup

attempt for a full five hours after his CPP colleague and Prime Minister, Hun

Sen, began plans to quell the plot.

Government and diplomatic sources say

that is clear that Sar Kheng was not informed because either Hun Sen suspected

that he had a hand in the coup attempt, or that the Second Prime Minister was

orchestrating a complicated pot against Sa Kheng.

They say that even

after Sar Kheng was summoned to Hun Sen's residence-the command center to quell

the coup-he was not given authority to supervise his duties as head of the

interior ministry until the plot was quelled.

In what analysts see as a

highly unusual move, CPP leader Hun Sen used Funcinpec forces-co-minister of

Interior You Hokry and his Funcinpec associates and those of former KPNLF

General Pan Thai, to quell the coup attempt.

By dusk on Saturday night,

government troops took up positions at the homes of major government leaders in

Phnom Pneh, and word spread rapidly of a coup attempt overnight in the city.

Government officials and their families were warned to stay at home.


APCs and rebel troops were stopped by loyalist forces 25 km from Phnom Penh at

Dei Eth at 8 pm without a confrontation, and eventually allowed to return to

barracks unpunished.

Government troops led by Gen Pan Thai, stormed the

houses of out-of-favor CPP leaders Prince Norodom Chakrapong and Sin Song and

seized a small amount of weapons and communication gear.

Former National

Security Minister Sin Song was arrested and former Deputy Prime Minister Prince

Chakrapong-after a several-hour standoff at the Regent Hotel off Monivong

Boulevard-was allowed to go into exile in Malaysia.

On the afternoon of

July 3 government spokesman Sieng LaPresse said that "one armed group led by Sin

song and Prince Chakrapong" attempted "to create disorder" and assassinate

senior government and military officials.

He said the threat had subsided

without any shots fired, and the rebel troops had been allowed to return to

their barracks.

"Those guys realized they made the wrong move and want to

go back to serve the government," Lapresse said.

Government leaders moved

quickly to contend that a major threat to the coalition had been


"We arrested Sin Song because he had confessed to what he had

done," Co-Minister of Interior You Hokry told the Post on July 3, "I think that

one or two people cannot do this kind of thing. There will be more arrests. But

this is a personal and individual act-this is not a CPP


Government officials fuelled confusion about the plot by giving

conflicting accounts about the motives of the two alleged


Coalition spokesmen said Sin Song had confessed and said the

reason he gave for the coup was that King Sihanouk had suggested bringing back

the Khmer Rouge in a government of national unity, which was, to him,


But Interior Minister Sar Kheng said: "According to what we

intercepted from phone conversations and other people was that Chakrapong was

involved in a coup and his objective was to give power to the King."


as confusingly Hokry told the Post on July 3, shortly before he escorted

Chakrapong to the airport, that: "We have no evidence to accuse him

[Chakrapong]. That is why we are letting him go."

What seems to be the

only consensus is that Chakrapong and Sin Song's involvement is the tip of the

iceberg of deeper plots within the government to stifle suspected opposition and

consolidate power from within.

Senior government sources involved in the

interrogation of Gen Sin Song-who allegedly controlled the small group of rebel

forces-say he has "threatened to reveal very high government officials who

supported him" On Tuesday July 5 one name he allegedly reveal was his colleague

Sin Sen.

Gen Sin Sen, the Secretary of State of the Interior Ministry,

who, along with Sing Song, holds great power and influence over the national

police units, was arrested at the airport on Wednesday, July 6, as he was

prepared to make a routine, pre-scheduled working visit to Malaysia. His bags

had already been loaded on the plane and he was waiting in the VIP


Sin Sen was arrested along with his powerful deputy, Gen Tes

Choy. Tes Choy controls the elite A-3 police forces and "protection" units,

responsible for security of leaders, VIPs and Phnom Penh.

All of the

officials implicated are known to have close links to the faction within the CPP

led by party President Chea Sim and Co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng.


Tuesday, July 7, at a highly charged private dinner of senior CPP officials Chea

Sim issued a stern warning to Hun Sen to end the arrests, or risk a backlash.

Hun Sen agreed, after it was clear that a push for more arrests would likely

result in armed conflict and a collapse of both the party and government,

sources said.

On July 8 and 9, government leaders-including both Prime

Ministers and both Interior Ministers-in their first show of unity since the

events began, issued strong joint warnings to the media and officials against

"spreading rumors" that cause "divisions among the leadership" to try to stifle

what was by then an open secret that powerful figures in the government were

deeply embroiled in a power struggle.

They backed up their threat by

arresting Ngoun Noun, editor of the popular Khmer paper the Morning News, which

had insinuated in July 8 editions that Sar Kheng was involved in the


Whoever was behind the events starting on July 2, Cambodian

officials and diplomats acknowledge that there has indeed been serious talk of a

coup for several months among CPP officials upset with recent political


Sources confirm that the United States and others had wind

that coup plots were in the air for more than two months, and had specifically

informed government officials in recent weeks-including Sin Song and Sar

Kheng-that the United States would refuse to support any government that emerged

from a putsch.

Tensions within the government have increased dramatically

in recent weeks after King Norodom Siihanouk called in mid-June for a new

government, which would bring in the Khmer Rouge in an effort to end the civil


The CPP, in May during private party meetings, reacted strongly

against earlier suggestions by the King that the Khmer Rouge be included in a

national reconciliation government and that the King be given real powers to

administer the state.

Last week, at the prompting of the CPP, the

National Assembly officially outlawed the Khmer Rouge, in a move that directly

opposed the King's peace initiatives.

Divisions within Funcinpec, that

included a public split in June between Finance Minister Sam Rainsy along with

Foreign Minister Norodom Sirivuddh against party boss Prince Ranariddh, also

spelled to many in the CPP that the government was being allowed to get

dangerously factionalized.

The tension within the government in recent

weeks has caused serious concern among the CPP in particular that it could cause

the collapse of the fragile coalition of former enemies.

An internal CPP

document dated June 29 obtained by the Post, demands that all party members sign

an oath of loyalty to not criticize the government or Party.

"All levels

of officials and members of the CPP must avoid directly or indirectly

criticizing the Royal Government, which will only hinder the process of national

reconstruction and serve the advantage of the enemy," said the


It was in this atmosphere that some intelligence analysts and

government officials concluded that the coup was organized at the highest level

by dominant figures within the CPP to attain an iron grip over the government

after weeks of open dissent among government officials.

The CPP-the

former communist party installed by Vietnam-are unused to debate or dissent that

has been forced on them in the wake of the UN-organized elections that created a

multiparty system of former battlefield enemies within the


According to supporters of this theory, the CPP coup

plotters-which included, among others Sin Song, Sin Sen, and had, at the least,

the knowledge and tacit approval of Sar Kheng and Chea Sim-planned to seize

temporary power but retain the National Assembly and Constitution so as to

preserve the image of success of the $2 billion dollar Untac mission and

maintain the flow of foreign aid.

This theory then has a cowed National

Assembly electing a new Prime Minister, likely to have been Sar Kheng, according

to sources.

Sar Kheng denied to the Post any prior knowledge or

involvement of the coup plots.

Evidence suggests, according to these

sources, that the coup plotters were to rely on the highly politicized national

police force under the Ministry of Interior.

The post has learned that

thousands of new style military uniforms were covertly delivered from Thailand

in recent weeks, and were said to be targeted to outfit the police forces to

replace the army in the event of a successful coup.

Intelligence sources,

diplomats, and government officials say they have strong evidence that both

Chakrapong and Sin Song had traveled to Vietnam and Thailand in recent weeks

seeking support for launching a coup.

But diplomats and even government

officials themselves agreed that neither Chakrapong nor Sin Song had either a

political power base nor controlled sufficient armed forces to launch a coup

attempt alone.

"I have no power and I have no forces. How can I make a

coup?" Chakrapong said while holed up in a hotel room surrounded by troops

during the waning hours of the drama on July 3.

Many suggested that the

two leaders this time had been promised support, and then betrayed by more

powerful figures within the ruling government.

"These two people are not

stupid. If they were to launch a coup, they would not do alone," said a senior

government official.

Sar Kheng, considered one of the most powerful

figures in both the CPP and the government, gave credence to this view in an

interview with the Post on July 5.

He said: "You are right to say there

should be someone powerful enough to launch a coup involved. That is why we will

investigate further."

He said the government would form a military

inquiry board to seek other plotters out.

But he acknowledged he himself

has been the target of suspicion.

"We want to clarify some speculation

you may have heard that His Excellency Sar Kheng was involved in that [coup]

attempt," government spokesman Lapresse said on July 3, "Not so. When the

attempt took place Sar Kheng was in the Prime Minister's residence."


Kheng also denied involvement during his interview with the Post. "I can tell

you that I am not directly or indirectly connected whatsoever in the coup


"I have one thing to say. I only knew about this event after it

happened. As Minister of Interior I should know before. I was not in control

until after."

Analysts say that if a coup involving Chakrapong and Sin

Song was indeed planned, there had to have been figures with political

legitimacy to lead a new government, and that neither of the figures would have

attempted a coup without the support of more powerful figures.

The two

accused plotters led an aborted secessionist movement of seven eastern provinces

in June 1993 in protest of UN-organized elections which saw their party lose to

the royalist Funcinpec.

The movement then had the covert backing of their

Cambodian People's Party leaders-including Hun Sen, Chea Sim, and Sar Kheng-and

resulted in forcing the fragile power sharing arrangement of the current

coalition government.

Sources told the Post that Vietnam informed

Cambodian leaders of the plot after Sin song and Chakrapong went to Hanoi in

recent weeks seeking weapons. The two were also said to have gone to Thailand on

a similar mission.

While gaping holes remained in the government version

of who was ultimately involved in the coup attempt, Cambodian leaders suggested

Thailand had a hand in the affair. Fourteen Thais detained at Pochentong on July

3 were investigated for links to Sin Song.

"We are waiting for one

witness that told us that there are nine Thai specialists on radio

communications, on weapons, on explosives who are now in Cambodia," First Prime

Minister Ranariddh said on July 7.

The accusations have severely strained

an already dismal relationship with Thailand after months of Cambodian

accusations of official Thai support for the Khmer Rouge.

Strong evidence

has emerged, according to diplomatic and government sources, that senior Thai

officials were aware of the coup attempt and had consulted with the plotters in

recent weeks.

There is no proof that the Thai officials were acting with

the approval of the Thai government.

Diplomats and government officials

say there are also unconfirmed reports that weapons shipments arrived to the

coup plotters via Thailand in the days before the coup.

What most

analysts agree is that there has been treachery within the ranks of the coup

plotters and between government leaders, and the real powers behind the turmoil

have yet to emerge.

But some observers contend that, even though it is

expected eventually to become clear who were the real powers behind the move,

they may remain too powerful to confront without risking a real collapse of the

government and it may take months before the real story emerges.

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