FUNCINPEC strongman Nhek Bun Chhay is believed alive, embarked on a perilous jungle
trek to join the remnants of the party's hardliners in Cambodia's northwest.
Wearing a "magic" jacket, Bun Chhay supposedly escaped injury when a bullet
struck him but bounced off - at least according to several soldiers who were with
him - as he fled from pursuing CPP soldiers and police.
Stories of the Funcinpec General's desperate break-out from Phnom Penh have emerged
with the testimonies of several of his soldiers who were later captured.
With a dwindling band of men, Bun Chhay was last week said to be striking for the
northwestern border with Thailand on foot. Complaining of aches and pains "from
the legs to the arms", he at one point stopped for a massage from one of his
Some of his former soldiers say they had to eat leaves to survive, while Bun Chhay
gave others money, telling them to buy - not steal - food if they got lost.
CPP posses tracked Bun Chhay through three provinces, at times coming within several
hundred meters of him. Many of his soldiers and loyal deputies were captured or killed,
and others fell exhausted, along the way.
While rumors of his death have swirled through Phnom Penh, the state of Bun Chhay's
health, and his whereabouts, remain a matter of speculation and, perhaps, myth.
Some Funcinpec sources claim Bun Chhay is already in Thailand, ready to join the
nascent resistance in northern Cambodia, while CPP say he was last reported to be
in Kampong Chhnang province.
Bun Chhay, the Funcinpec-appointed deputy chief of staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces (RCAF), is undoubtedly the most powerful commander of the party's now-shattered
military. A warrant for his arrest, as well as three other chiefs - at least one
of whom, Ho Sok, was summarily executed - has been issued.
The end of Bun Chhay's Phnom Penh days began on Sunday, July 6, around 8 in the morning,
at the peak of that weekend's factional fighting. He led as many as 100 troops out
of his encircled Tang Krasang base near Pochentong Airport for the last time, as
CPP forces and eight tanks pounded the base with heavy shelling from three directions.
"We had no way to escape except by moving to the east. I was on my moto but
he [Bun Chhay] was walking. I was asked to lead the way for Nhek Bun Chhay,"
recalled Chum Buntha, who was later captured by CPP and is now back at Tang Krasang
Bun Chhay's group headed for the front-line of Tralaok Bek, near the intersection
of Pochentong and Kampuchea Krom blvds, where other Tang Krasang fighters had fought
their way to the previous day.
CPP feared that Bun Chhay was attempting to link up with forces at the besieged compounds
of other Funcinpec leaders in the west of the city. But several of Bun Chhay's soldiers
said his decision was made from the moment he fled Tang Krasang: he was headed to
After several hours of fighting around Tralaok Bek, Bun Chhay gave the retreat order
late Sunday afternoon. Under heavy bombardment from CPP tanks close to the university,
he and his men headed through the "Village of 100 houses", in Toul Kok,
as fires swept through the wooden shacks.
Bun Chhay's forces, of 100-200 men, fled through the night, keeping close to one
another, but with little sense of their route, according to several who were later
captured in Kampong Speu.
In the early hours of Monday morning, having crossed one river, they reached the
shore of Boeung Ta Pok lake in Kandal province, west of Phnom Penh.
"Nhek Bun Chhay ordered us to sleep. There was no food, we slept on a piece
of dry land. It was raining but not heavily," said Chan Dy.
Guns, ammunition, and kit were piled on boats hired from local fishermen. Troops
waded through chest-high water, clinging to the boats, Bun Chhay in one of them.
In the deeper sections of the lake they swam.
The fugitives arrived in the Phnom Baset district, near Oudong, around dawn on Monday,
July 7. They scurried for cover into a small forest near the lake where they rested.
Bun Chhay began distributing 10,000 riel to each soldier, said Chan Dy. "He
said, 'In case you lose your way, you will have money to buy food and not rob the
By this time Bun Chhay had traded the bullet-proof vest he was wearing when he left
Tang Krasang for a 'magic jacket', to protect him in battle.
"It's just a simple jacket with magic things in the pockets," said Chan
As they rested in the forest, soldiers massaged the Funcinpec general, who complained
that he had "pain from the legs to the arms".
After a scant half-hour rest, the troops moved off. A dragnet was already in operation.
Oudong district police based at Bat Deng - 10 km west of Phnom Baset on the Kampong
Speu provincial boundary - were informed of a "problem" in Phnom Baset
at 8 am.
"I was told by the police in Kandal that these troops were moving to Oudong
and will fight to get food for their escape. We stationed police at the markets and
strategic points," said local deputy police chief Cheng Bun Sreng.
"A lot of people reported that there were many people running in the rice fields.
There were many small groups [of fugitive soldiers] in many places," he added.
CPP soldiers and police poured into the area. Five divisions were involved, including
RCAF parachute units and Division 1 troops led by former Khmer Rouge commander Keo
Pong, according to Saom Tit, Deputy Chief of Kampong Speu police.
Hun Sen forces were deployed in lines across Kampong Speu province to cut off Bun
Chhay's escape into the forest. That day, there were at least two major clashes between
the opposing forces, as Bun Chhay attempted to dodge the dragnet, pressing resolutely
"The forest goes into Kampong Chhnang, then to Battambang, and then to Thailand.
It was his way to escape," said Suon Huoen, administrative chief for Oudong
The fleeing Funcinpec units came within 300 meters of the Bat Deng police station,
according to the official, before they ran into a herd of nervous cows.
"The boys looking after the cows said 'Oh, the cows are disturbed; there are
soldiers over there'," said Suon Houen. CPP police heard the boy's cries and
went over to investigate; Bun Chhay's troops, also hearing the boys, ran off.
A short time later monks at nearby Wat Sokhaharam saw the runaways trudging through
the paddies. RCAF troops arrived at the pagoda soon after but missed their quarry.
"We were really scared even though we are monks and we wear orange robes, because
the bullets do not recognize us," said one monk.
As they moved on, headed toward Kampong Chhnang, Bun Chhay's troops took local villagers
to guide them and then released them as they moved on.
Many of the Tang Krasang renegades abandoned their guns and ammunition as they fled,
and swapped their military khaki for civilian clothes with villagers, local authorities
According to prisoners, Bun Chhay avoided pitched battles with the CPP units pursuing
him, urging his troops to simply "keep going".
"It looked like we had no direction, we just kept going, running without food.
We grabbed the leaves of trees to eat and kept going. When the fighting was on one
side we ran to the other," recalled Phin Choey, speaking at Bat Deng police
station where he was being held with five other soldiers.
One by one, many of the soldiers gave up the flight and surrendered as the day wore
Human rights investigators reported 72 prisoners were captured in Phnom Baset district
alone. Provincial police authorities were unable to estimate the total number of
Bun Chhay's troops captured, saying that each of the divisions involved in the operation
had taken its own captives.
By dusk on Monday, Bun Chhay's troops had reached Trach Tong commune, close to Kampong
Chhnang province and the safety of Sva Huec forest.
The renegade soldiers bivouacked briefly while several of them went to a nearby village
to buy food. "We slept in wet clothes, we just fell down and slept where we
were," said Chan Dy.
It was a mistake. CPP forces had surrounded them again. Thirty prisoners, including
Gen Ly Seng Hong, were captured before night fell, according to Trach Tong commune
chief, Phon Phouen.
"The troops surrendered to the government and said they couldn't walk anymore.
They were exhausted. When they came over they walked like ducks," said the official.
Ly Seng Hong was executed, according to human rights investigators. Other senior
Funcinpec military leaders believed to have met the same fate when captured, individually
or together, include Gens Chao Sambath, Sam Norin and Maen Bun Thon.
Late on Monday night, Bun Chhay and his men "lost the way", according to
Chan Dy, crossing the railway line which leads northwest to Battambang several times
in the darkness.
The next morning, they clashed with their pursuers, near Ra Smach village. Bun Chhay
himself was hit, one soldier said.
"He fell down and smoke came up from his back but he got up and ran ahead into
the forest," said Keo Kunthea, who believed that "the bullet didn't enter
his body" because of Bun Chhay's magic jacket.
Another soldier, Kol Karona, said Bun Chhay shouted at his men to get down when CPP
forces opened fire.
"About two of three bullets hit him on the back, just after he shouted at us.
Smoke came up from his back... but he was not injured."
Several small groups of Bun Chhay's men escaped into the Sva Huec forest, Kampong
Chhnang, according to provincial police.
A week later, CPP forces said they had discovered the remains of a small camp, where
a hammock, weapons, two backpacks and Nhek Bun Chhay's "fighting map" of
Phnom Penh were found. A trail of blood led away from the camp, police said.
The RCAF Chief of Staff, General Ke Kim Yan, said July 19 that the hunt for Bun Chhay
was focused on Kampong Chhnang .
"We cannot let him flee because he has to receive the punishment for organizing
illegal troops against the government," warned Kim Yan.
Another senior CPP source, asked where Bun Chhay was, pointed at a map of Cambodia
and traced a route from Kampong Chhnang to the northwestern border with Thailand.
"It's a long way," the official shrugged.