THE SALAD DAYS
Gen. Nhek Bun Chhay (left) and, pointing at right, Chief of General Staff Gen. Ke Kim Yan pictured here at Russey Keo Military Academy in early 1997 ó a time when still the RCAF was struggling to maintain unity, even if their politicians had all but given up the pretence. In the middle, with head down, is Prince Ranariddhís military adviser Gen. Tum Sambol.
The international community is paying scant attention to possibly the gravest potential
threat to Cambodian peace, say those who have been monitoring the Royal Cambodian
Armed Forces (RCAF) for the past year.
The threat centers around the stability and neutrality of the RCAF.
The most immediate problem is achieving a peaceful and unanimous end to the armed
resistance led by Funcinpec Gen. Nhek Bun Chhay.
"If the international community doesn't attach importance to this problem, they
are wrong. Very wrong. There is a split within the RCAF, and it's dangerous,"
one military source said.
The Japanese four-pillar peace plan, which called for a ceasefire between the resistance
and the RCAF and the reintegration of Bun Chhay's forces "is flawed", the
"I'm not attacking the initiative, which was great, fantastic. But it hasn't
been followed up with conviction," he said. "If there's one lesson that
should have been learned from UNTAC it's that when a military conflict is not resolved,
elections are not going to solve it... Not at all."
Another analyst called the ceasefire and integration provisions in the Japanese plan
a "paper resolution... as good as no resolution at all". He said the military
split would take years to resolve.
Talks in Phnom Penh between the RCAF and pro-Ranariddh forces broke down for the
second time in the last fortnight because the RCAF wanted only to discuss the reintegration
of resistance forces. Bun Chhay's negotiators instead wanted the RCAF to first sign
The resistance also tabled a call for a blanket amnesty to resistance chiefs Bun
Chhay and Serey Kosal - a judicial matter the CPP-aligned military negotiators rightly
refused to acknowledge, experts said. Bun Chhay and Kosal, even if pardoned, will
probably not be given their old positions back, nor would most of the resistance
hierachy. In this matter it appears it is in their interests to stall and await the
results of the election.
Phnom Penh refused to sign a formal bilateral ceasefire for fear it would be tantamount
recognition of a parallel structure of military command led by Bun Chhay. The lack
of a formal ceasefire also keeps Bun Chhay's forces pinned on the border as virtual
prisoners - even though for some months there has been no significant fighting.
RCAF Chief of General Staff Gen. Ke Kim Yan also wants to know exactly how many troops
Bun Chhay has, and who and where they are.
It's difficult to see this being resolved quickly, even though the two men respect
each other and have little difficulty working together.
Kim Yan is in contact with Bun Chhay by telephone, and by all accounts they do not
talk to each other as enemies. Their wives were both born in the same village and
are firm friends.
Bun Chhay's is a larger force than has been generally reported in local and international
press. He has more than ten bases along the Thai-Cambodian border in the north and
the west, with O'Smach being by far the largest, and "sleepers" (hidden
soldiers) inside Cambodia. His areas of control are historically secure and comfortably
defended by his ex-ANKI and ex-KPNLF resistance partners.
Bun Chhay claims to command more than 21,000 soldiers and 75,000 civilians. Independent
sources say that's too high. They estimate he has 8,500 soldiers in border bases,
another 6,000 inside the country including a significant number of Khmer Rouge who
have defected since 1994.
The resistance general also counts on Funcinpec loyalists still at least nominally
on the RCAF payroll, but marginalized from power within their units, some of them
even stripped of rank and fearful for their safety. He also counts on other Funcinpec
officers who have simply absented themselves from duty.
Even the CPP-dominated RCAF negotiators now accept that Bun Chhay could immediately
produce 8,500 troops for integration if a deal could be struck.
But they don't accept many more than that, and are worried that the integration of
Bun Chhay's most recent conscripts would give him a bigger power base now than last
July, when he fled with 7,500 men from around the country. And integration would
mean scattering Bun Chhay loyalists all around Cambodia - potentially creating the
same powder-keg as before.
Bun Chhay's forces, while significant in number, are poorly funded and armed, and
do not have supplies of ammunition suficient to fight - nor the stomach for it.
International observers say that Bun Chhay has no contact nor the desire to work
with a militarily-weakened Ta Mok, despite occasional CPP claims to the contrary.
"[Bun Chhay] knows it's not in his interests to do so. It wouldn't benefit him
at all," said one analyst. Bun Chhay is known to hate Ta Mok, a man he fought
during Democratic Kampuchea's 1975-79 regime.
Khan Savoeun, formerly commander of Military Region 4, is Bun Chhay's second-in-command.
Former Division 12 commander Lay Vireak has experienced, combat-ready troops in O'Baichoan
and the rest of Banteay Meanchey, but, again, little money.
Former second governor of Battambang, Serey Kosal, works with former KR commander
Iem Phan around the Samlot area, but generally Bun Chhay's "army" is delineated
underneath him by a series of base commanders.
The talks will probably resume June 26 with little chance of success even if, politically,
Hun Sen would garner international plaudits if he agreed to a ceasefire or integration
"solution" sometime before July 26.
Hun Sen may also feel he could weaken Bun Chhay's charismatic hold on his troops
by unconditionally accepting them back with gifts of food, money and, ostensibly,
Bun Chhay, on the other hand, sees his present military position as untenable, and
is bound by Ranariddh's decision to follow the Japanese peace plan and talk.
"[Bun Chhay] would integrate with the CPP tomorrow, but not with Hun Sen or
[National Police Director] Hok Lundy," said one source. Analysts talk about
"hatred" between Hun Sen and Bun Chhay.
"Bun Chhay would lose little by reintegrating... he knows his people would follow
him again if necessary," the source continued.
Ranariddh was never in danger of being cast out of the election campaign because
of Bun Chhay's resistance army. At least one of the previously undefined "lines
in the sand" - minimum electoral conditions insisted on by foreign donors -
has since been defined: once the concept of integration was agreed, Funcinpec would
Logistically, reintegration is not difficult. Resistance forces can simply wander
back home to their villages or units: "It may not take long once a deal has
been done. Hun Sen will give them rice and food and money, just like [he gave] the
"But [a military solution] is not a condition of elections. Funcinpec may see
[returning resistance soldiers] as more potential voters, but I haven't had any sense
of pushing this toward solution before polling day," said another source. Returning
soldiers would, by now, miss out on registration anyway.
Without guarantees of safety, without his men and without his old powerbase within
the RCAF hierachy, Bun Chhay may think he'd gain nothing personally in accepting
a CPP-driven resolution to the present resistance - especially before the election.
He is only working for his own officers who have been promised their old jobs back.
However, it may be that Bun Chhay is only a peripheral player in the big game anyway.