RUMORS of coup attempts, unusual troop movements and feared clashes between Funcinpec
and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) swirled through Phnom Penh in the past several
weeks, but it was unclear whether they were anything more than hot air.
Both Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his co-Prime Minister Hun Sen were said to have
boosted their personal security, while their parties drew up strategies for armed
confrontation against each other.
Hun Sen spoke publicly of a plot to kill him, and warned that he would suppress any
"poisonous reactionary forces" who bid to seize power.
There were reports, relayed to Hun Sen on at least one occasion, that Funcinpec was
moving senior military commanders and troops from Cambodia's northwest toward Phnom
The rumors peaked over the Khmer New Year but, at the Post's press time, had proved
Government officials and MPs downplayed the seriousness of the situation, suggesting
that Hun Sen and Ranariddh were simply covering their backs rather than planning
to attack each other.
"If something happens, it will happen in Phnom Penh, so he has to have some
of his army to help him here," said one Funcinpec MP of Ranariddh.
A government official said there had been persistent rumors of movements of soldiers
and armored personnel carriers in and around Phnom Penh.
While "we should not minimize or underestimate the situation", the official
did not believe either side would initiate violence.
"I think that the leaders of both sides are receiving zealous, exaggerated reports
from their collaborators on security matters.
"They are in a poker game of words, of false reports."
At one stage last week, he said, Hun Sen was informed that senior Funcinpec general
Nhek Bun Chhay was moving troops from the Battambang frontlines toward Phnom Penh.
In fact, Bun Chhay was still in Battambang.
Funcinpec sources said that Bun Chhay had reportedly threatened to return to Phnom
Penh if the CPP chief of general army staff, Ke Kim Yan, left Battambang for the
The government official said Funcinpec and CPP had each called meetings of their
military and security officials to prepare for any fight between the parties, but
he insisted that both sides were only making contingency plans.
"It's not abnormal to prepare a scenario like 'if something happens, what should
we do?' It doesn't mean you are intending to do it."
While acknowledging that "if there was a real crisis, there would be bloodshed,"
the official believed the tension was easing.
Hun Sen, in a speech broadcast on radio April 8, said he had information about an
assassination plot against him and vowed to "step on the neck" of anyone
who tried to kill him. In apparent reference to the case of exiled Prince Norodom
Sirivudh, Hun Sen said he had survived one murder plot and warned people not to "dream"
about planning another one.
On April 12, Hun Sen urged Cambodians to celebrate the New Year normally, despite
rumors that the holiday "won't be happy."
"No matter how poisonous the reactionary forces will be, I can suppress them,"
he said in reference to a coup. "And if they want to try, I'll show them...in
order to ensure safety and security for the people.
"I cannot allow anyone to act unwisely, no matter who he is."
Both Ranariddh and Hun Sen maintain sizable personal bodyguard forces, or "private
armies" as one political observer put it. Ranariddh also has troops and tanks
stationed at Pochentong Airport, where he has a plane.
But few observers credit Funcinpec with enough military clout to win a battle with
CPP. Much of the military, and the security forces of the Ministry of Interior, is
widely believed to be under CPP control.
Officials and observers said neither side would benefit from a fight. Several said
that the biggest danger was a few "zealous" people whose actions or words
could be misconstrued - mistakenly or otherwise - and prompt a violent reaction.
The behind-the-scenes anxiety and distrust was played out amid conflicting public
signals from Funcinpec and CPP over their relations, which plummeted after Ranariddh
last month complained of his party's lack of real power.
Ranariddh and Hun Sen met each other in Kompong Cham April 5, as top officials from
both parties were publicly maintaining there were no real problems between the pair.
Four days later, Deputy Prime Ministers Sar Kheng (CPP) and Ing Kieth (Funcinpec)
led party representatives in the first official discussions to try to resolve their
The meeting agreed to keep the government coalition, settle all problems peacefully
and hold further meetings, sources say. Also agreed was that a joint communiqué
be issued to express the parties' commitment to working together, and that a kind
of "summit" be held by their top leaders. At press time, the communiqué
had not been issued.
On April 12 Hun Sen seemed to reaffirm a hard-line position against Funcinpec, declaring
that he "absolutely" refused to sign any CPP district officials' positions
over to Funcinpec.
"Don't be cheated and hope that by joining a political party, you will get a
government job," he advised the public.
District-power sharing was one of the key demands made by Ranariddh when, at a Mar
21 Funcinpec congress, he described himself and his party as a "puppet"
in the coalition government.
Meanwhile, King Norodom Sihanouk - who has suggested he host roundtable talks between
the Prime Ministers - said this month that he would abdicate and abolish the monarchy
if most Cambodians wanted that.
His statement, in an interview with Royal Palace staff made public April 10, was
made in apparent reference to the prospect of Hun Sen becoming head of state if Cambodia
were to become a republic.
The King was asked by his interviewers to comment on reports that elderly Prey Veng
women had told Hun Sen, on a recent visit there, that they wanted him to hold a position
higher than that of Prime Minister.
The King, noting Hun Sen's reply that he had no such ambitions, said the Prime Minister
had shown that he was a selfless patriot.
However, the King said, if the Cambodian people wanted to elevate Hun Sen, "this
desire could be expressed by a national referendum."
"If an absolute majority of our people pronounce themselves against the monarchy
and for the republic, the monarchy will step aside," the King said.
Earlier, in an unrelated matter, one of King Sihanouk's North Korean bodyguards knocked
into Hun Sen during the inauguration of a market in Kompong Cham April 5.
The Prime Minister wore a sling after the incident, in which the King's bodyguards
jostled with Hun Sen's security staff. One North Korean accidentally ran into Hun
Sen, reportedly striking his left arm with a holstered gun. The chief of the Royal
bodyguards apologized to Hun Sen, and the King extended his public apologies.