T HE absence of much of the country's leadership while attending ICORC in Paris
earlier this month set of a chain of events that reflects the deep distrust that
remains between the three primary factions within the government and officials'
jitters about activities of critics outside the government.
While life in
the city remained normal and serene on the surface last week, behind the scenes
various political power blocs were on the alert for perceived enemies. Rumors
swept government military and intelligence circles of possible demonstrations,
coup attempts, prison breakouts, and palace intrigue in the absence of the two
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen left Cambodia to join
First Prime Minister Ranariddh in Paris on Mar 10, making it the first time both
prime ministers had been absent from the country at the same time since last
August, in the wake of July's aborted coup attempt.
Last August, the two
prime ministers insisted at the last minute that Co-Deputy Prime Minister and
Interior Minister Sar Kheng accompany them on their state visit to Malaysia,
afraid to leave him in Phnom Penh, according to government and diplomatic
sources. In his capacity as co-deputy prime minister, Sar Kheng shares the role
of head of government with Co-Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Kiet in the absence of
the prime ministers.
But this time, the Prime Ministers neglected to sign
the documents formally transferring authority in their absence. Diplomats and
government sources say that for 24 hours until March 11 there was no one
formally in power in Cambodia until the leaders were tracked down in France and
convinced to sign the papers. Meanwhile, Hun Sen ordered his secret police to
monitor closely the telephone conversations, movements and meetings of Sar Kheng
while the second prime minister was overseas, according to senior government
On Saturday, March 11, Sar Kheng dispatched "several hundred"
security personnel on high alert to monitor "unusual movements around the city
by military because of rumors of demonstrations or coup attempts," according to
sources close to him.
In separate events, the military was put on alert
and large numbers of troops were dispatched by different political leaders-often
without informing or coordinating with each other-in preparations to put down
Co-Defense Minister Tea Chamrath on March 22
denied that there was any unusual military activity. "There are no troop
movements, everything is normal," he told the Post, saying that there was no
increased state of alert. But several other senior officers confirmed a "state
of alert, precautionary measures because of rumors of
Sar Kheng was not informed of hundreds of provincial
based forces loyal to Hun Sen who were secretly brought in from the provinces on
Sunday, March 12 and remained stationed at press time on key roads on the
outskirts of Phnom Penh waiting for orders to enter the city in case of
"We were ordered to come here to protect against a possible
coup attempt by the CPP," said one soldier interviewed by the Post in a
frightened whisper, saying his commander had ordered absolute secrecy of their
mission. His unit of 300 was brought from Kompong Cham and stationed at a pagoda
12 kilometers north of Phnom Penh in Bak Kheng village. "We were told that if
nothing happens in two weeks we will go back, but there might be another
As well 300 "special troops" brought in from Kampot are located on
Route 3 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh for similar purposes, said a senior
military general. "They are the troops of the second prime minister," he said.
Other similar strike forces are located on other major routes entering the city,
say military and diplomatic sources, but no clear figure of exactly how many
could be confirmed.
Senior Hun Sen loyalists in the military insist they
had strong evidence that a demonstration was scheduled for Thursday, March 16 by
"military personnel, intellectuals, and students. Their slogans were the
necessity of national reconciliation, support of the King, and oppose
corruption," according to a senior diplomat with close ties to the CPP. Hun Sen
loyalists inside the military assured diplomats: "The CPP is fully aware of the
situation and it is completely under control. Nothing will happen."
were told there was a plan for demonstrations or coups against the government so
that is why there are troop movements," said a perplexed senior diplomat, "but
maybe the main reason is simple distrust among the factions in the
On Tuesday, March 14, CPP strongman Chea Sim requested an
audience with the King and informed him of possible coup attempts in the making.
One source quoted Chea Sim as telling King Sihanouk, "According to the rumor
there will be a coup and this coup will come from the Royal palace. But, of
course, we don't believe you are involved."
Said a diplomat close to the
CPP: "The meaning of Chea Sim's visit to King Sihanouk was: 'If you dare do
something, the reaction will be very strong.'"
Within 48 hours Sihanouk
abruptly announced that he would be departing for Beijing for medical reasons,
citing test results from doctors at the Pasteur Institute that required follow
up by Chinese doctors. But sources close to the King acknowledge that "The King
is not happy that people are using his name. He is accused of joining Sam Rainsy
or Son Sann or trying to make a coup. He doesn't want to be forced to be
involved or be seen as a mastermind." The Kind departed for Beijing March
At the same time rumors of an attempted prison breakout of convicted
coup plotter Sin Sen from Phnom Penh's T-3 jail led to secret police cordoning
off the jail on March 16 and reinforcements sent to beef up prison security,
ordered by Funcinpec Co-Minister of Interior You Hokry. Sources close to Sar
Kheng say that he was not informed of the security reinforcements at T-3 until
afterwards. "You Hokry ordered Funcinpec men to be on alert," said a senior
government source close to You Hokry, "He does not trust Sar Kheng or Hun Sen-so
he ordered his own troops to be on alert, not just T-3 but all over the city.
You Hokry has no confidence in anyone, that is clear."
sources close to You Hokry, he received intelligence around March 13 that guards
at T-3 were "preparing to look the other way" as an attempt would be made to
breakout Sin sen. You Hokry dispatched 40 additional plainclothes guards on
March 16, bringing to a total of 90 the number of guards at the prison by the
end of the week. Roads around T-3 were blocked to traffic, and undercover
security patrols remained heavy at press time. All visits by family and doctors
were suspended to Sin Sen, according to prison officials. You Hokry acknowledged
the increased security at T-3, when contacted by the Post on March 22, but
deemed it a "routine precaution. It is normal," he said.
The last time
Hun Sen was in Paris in August for medical treatment, accused Sin Sen coup
collaborator Sin Song escaped from prison under circumstances that strongly
suggest official assistance from sectors of the government, government and
diplomatic sources agree.
What lies as a backdrop to all these high level
official jitters are persistent intelligence reports that there may be further
disturbances, including Khmer Rouge terrorist attacks, in Phnom Penh around the
Khmer New Year and 20th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge victory in mid-April.
Rumors of secretly planned demonstrations that openly confront the government
and call for a return to power of the King abound.
intelligence sources say they have firm evidence that the Khmer Rouge have
infiltrated explosives and special units into Phnom Penh in recent weeks for
such a purpose. "We know that the Khmer Rouge have smuggled at least two 107
rockets from Kompong Thom, but we lost track of them outside of Phnom Penh. We
do not know where they are now," said a senior government official.
Hundred seven mm rocket launchers are a portable weapon with a firing range of
seven kilometers, and officials fear that the rebels may fire them into the
city, according to sources.
But even many of the senior government
sources say that in fact there is little hard evidence that disturbances are
planned. "The one thing that is sure is that nobody trusts each other. That is
very clear," said one senior government official.
Other officials say
that the insistence that antigovernment activity is imminent may be just pretext
to use to crackdown on dissent within the government which has greatly angered
senior officials in recent months. "It's like they're preparing public opinion,"
said an official in reference to official intelligence of demonstrations or
Khmer Rouge terrorism. "These rumors of manifestations are mainly rumors with no
substance when you look behind each one. They may be creating an atmosphere to
use it as a pretext to crackdown." He cited the constitutional allowance for the
prime ministers to "declare a state of emergency" in the case of civil
Human rights officials say that the prime ministers' call to shut
down the UN Center for Human Rights, the numerous censures of opposition press
in recent months, and the legal preparations by the government to charge
maverick MP Sam Rainsy with what amounts to treason, are the beginning of an
official effort to put an end to criticism of the government that leaders say
undermines its image at home and abroad as a democratic country.
night of March 22, 15 armed men from the government's Bodyguard Protection Unit
came to Rainsy's house and ordered Rainsy's bodyguards to return to their
barracks. Interior Minister You Hokry confirmed later that night that the move
was an official order. "It is not the job of the government to protect MPs," he
The bodyguards were the same personnel who had protected Rainsy
before he was sacked last September as finance minister.
government officials say it is part of an officially sanctioned campaign of
intimidation that has been ordered by senior officials to begin against Rainsy
with the objective of frightening him to silence his criticism or leave the
country. "There will be a show of force. Rainsy is in big trouble, real danger,"
said the official, with close ties to the government security apparatus. "They
will at first only try to frighten him and his wife. But they will do whatever
is necessary to stop him in the end."
The official said that the
strategy, led by the second Prime Minister Hun Sen, is based on the theory that
if Rainsy is allowed to succeed in his criticism it may give ammunition to other
government critics, many now frightened into silence, to speak out. "If Rainsy
is allowed to win, other MPs could view him as a martyr. Then other voices will
be raised. It is unacceptable to allow the National Assembly to become a real
democratic institution. The two PMs must maintain control over the National
assemble [and] not allow it to be an independent force."
Ranariddh said last week that "I am sorry Sam Rainsy was finance minister. I am
sorry he is in Funcinpec. I am sorry he is a Khmer."