Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Causes and Consequences

Sorpong Peou
Southeast Asian Affairs (1998)

On 5-6 July 1997, troops loyal to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen (of the Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP) and those of First Prime Minister Norodom Randariddh (leader of the royalist party known as FUNCINPEC, or the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Co-operative Cambodia) engaged in a fierce street battle in Phnom Penh. The fighting stunned the Cambodian people and the world. Within two days, the CPP force defeated its enemy, and then pushed the remnants against the northern Thai-Cambodian border into a tiny strategic area called O Smach. At year’s end, Hun Sen still held high the trophy of victory.

This article seeks to explore the events of July 1997. At issue is whether or not what took place constitutes a coup; and, if it is a coup, what kind? I argue that the overthrow of Ranariddh was a coup, not a social revolution or putsch. Unlike coups in many other countries, however, it was not caused by factors such as ethnic or ideological antagonisms, socio-political turmoil, or military dominance. I take a structural approach, arguing that Hun Sen’s actions must be explained in terms of his struggle for hegemonic preservation, as his party and adversaries braced themselves for the next election scheduled for 1998. (In this study, the term “hegemon” means “leader”, and struggle for hegemony simply means struggle for political leadership.) Although the Second Prime Minister has now achieved political dominance, preventing bipolarity from emerging, he has also recreated Cambodia’s old power structure, prone to coups, violence and war.

Prelude to a Pre-Emptive Coup

In the debate over whether Hun Sen’s actions were or were not a coup, those who supported or sympathized with the Second Prime Minister viewed them as preventing Prince Ranariddh from staging a coup against the government. Those who put the blame on Hun Sen considered his actions a coup. It may be worth describing politico-military developments leading to the July events and then examining the two opposing perspectives more closely.

In May 1993, elections were organized by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which intervened in the country following the Paris Agreement in October 1991. This resulted in a coalition among four elected parties: FUNCINPEC; the CPP; the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (SPNLF) turned Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP); and Molinaka, a Sihanouk-aligned group that fought against the State of Cambodia (as the CPP was previously known) in the 1980’s, but did not participate in the signing of the Paris Agreement. FUNCINPEC and the CPP emerged as the dominant parties, receiving respectively fifty-eight and fifty-one seats in a 120-member Constituent Assembly, which was transformed into the National Assembly in September 1993. Prince Ranariddh became First Prime Minister, and CPP leader Hun Sen Second Prime Minister.

The coalition was a strange one from the outset. All factions retained their own military forces, and each controlled discrete sections of the bureaucracy. Relations between the CPP and FUNCINPEC were difficult, and soon became much worse. Tensions between the two prime ministers emerged publicly when Ranariddh held his party’s twice-delayed Congress on 21-22 March 1996. As FUNCINPEC President, Ranariddh took a tough line vis-à-vis the CPP, threatening to leave the coalition if FUNCINPEC were not given greater powers at the local level. He was quoted as saying the following: “Being First puppet prime minister, puppet vice-prime minister, puppet ministers, puppet governors and deputy governors and soon-to-be puppet chiefs of districts … being a puppet is not so good.” He preferred to lead an opposition party against the CPP in the National Assembly.

The CPP reacted strongly to Ranariddh’s challenge. On 26 March it issued a statement condemning the FUNCINPEC threat to abandon the coalition, claiming that it sapped the spirit of national reconciliation. Although the leaders were seen together for the first time since March at the inauguration of a renovated temple in Phnom Penh on 1 June, Hun Sen still came hard on FUNCINPEC, blaming the latter for the armed forces’ failure to capture a Khmer Rouge stronghold in Pailin in late April and criticizing FUNCINPEC Minister of Education Tol Loah for having failed to resolve the shortage of teachers. In June, Hun Sen attacked the FUNCINPEC Minister of Public Works, Ieng Kieth, calling the latter the “worst minister of Public Works in the last 17 years.”

The two prime ministers had no more joint meetings until August, after a Khmer Rouge faction led by Ieng Sary (formerly known as Brother number two in Khmer Rouge leadership) broke away from the so-called hard-liners led by Pol Pot (Brother number one). It was the Khmer Rouge breakaway announced by Hun Sen on 8 August that brought the two dominant parties back together again. On 23 August, they issued a joint statement seeking King Sihanouk’s royal pardon for Ieng Sary. Despite their joint effort to get amnesty for Ieng Sary from the King, the two prime ministers soon began to take unilateral action to win Khmer Rouge defectors over to their own side. The tension between them worsened when their factional troops fought each other in Battambang province. FUNCINPEC Deputy Governor Serey Kosal, who had quarrelled with the CPP Governor Ung Samy, threatened to cut off the province from Phnom Penh. A top CPP leader, Heng Samrin, said on 18 November that the two coalition partners “cannot be allies”.

Tensions between the two prime ministers continued to deteriorate in the first half of 1997. Early in the year Ranariddh moved to bu8ild a new political front known as the National United Front (NUF), comprising FUNCINPEC, the BLDP, the Khmer Nation Party (KNP) led by the former Finance Minister and senior FUNCINPEC leader Sam Rainsy, and the small Khmer Neutral Party. Amongst its declared policies was the objective of having only one prime minister after the next elections. Hun Sen immediately responded to the NUF by taking steps to build his own political alliance. In February, he signed agreements with the Liberal Democratic Party and a BLDP faction led by Information Minister Ieng Mouley (who had broken away from Son Sann in 1996).

The two prime ministers’ political animosities intensified when a number of royalist members of parliament challenged Ranariddh’s leadership in mid-April. Hun Sen was quick to extend his support for the renegades, thus upsetting the Prince. The National Assembly did not reconvene as the members of parliament refused to meet. Desperate, Ranariddh agreed to nominal Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan’s plan to join the NUF when the latter declared that he wanted to form a new party called the Khmer Solidarity Party, which would break away from the notorious Pol Pot. In late May, troops loyal to Hun Sen seized an arms shipment intended for Ranariddh’s use to build up his bodyguard unit. The Prince’s top military man Nhek Bun Chhay (Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Armed forces) apparently continued negotiations with the Khmer Rouge remnants, which may have contributed to the breakup of the Khmer Rouge leadership (as evident in Pol Pot ordering his “defence minister” Son Sen, and his family members executed). On 17 June the Khmer Rouge radio denounced Pol Pot. In Phnom Penh, on the evening of that day, fighting between the bodyguards of Ranariddh and Hun Sen resulted in deaths of two royalist soldiers and one of Hun Sen’s.

After the fighting in July, Hun Sen also made no attempt to turn the country back to the past by abolishing the parliamentary system and taking over the position of First Prime Minister from the FUNCINPEC. He instead encouraged the royalist remnants to choose a new leader to replace the deposed Prince as First Prime Minister. Royalist Foreign Minister Ung Huot was then “elected”. Hun Sen also recognized, at least in principle and on paper, that FUNCINPEC was still his major coalition partner and made no move to turn Cambodia beck into a socialist state, as his People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime did in the 1980s.

The “Ranariddh Coup” Thesis

The CPP insisted that Hun Sen’s action could not be considered a coup. If it were a coup, it was Ranariddh’s. the official “Ranariddh Coup” version can be found in official documents issued by the post-coup leadership in Phnom Penh. In their joint letter to Ambassador Thomas Hammarberg (Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Human Rights in Cambodia), dated 18 November 1997, new First Prime Minister Ung Huot and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen objected to Hammarberg’s “mischaracterization” of the 5-6 July events as a coup d’état. The letter stated: “You continue to refer to the events in a way that clearly indicates a bias toward the position of the former first Prime Minister and against that of the duly constituted Government in Phnom Penh.” It added: “The facts demonstrate that the Royal Government saved the country from a coup; it did not lead one.”

Both Ung Huot and Hun Sen reminded Hammarberg of the two major public documents issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation: White Paper Background ON THE July 1997 Crisis: Prince Ranariddh’s Strategy of Provocation (9 July 1997), and Crisis in July Report on the Armed Insurrection: Its Origins, History, and Aftermath (22 September 1997). The documents provide detailed accounts from Hun Sen’s perspective, but fall short of characterizing the overthrow of Prince Ranariddh as a coup. The White Paper argues that it was Ranariddh who was at fault because of his ‘reckless strategy of provocation, which has only served to destabilize Cambodia.’ It provided a brief background to FUNCINPEC’s failure to build itself as a political party, while claiming that the CPP ‘was sure to win the next election’ because ‘it was active in every province of the country’. Consequently, ‘Prince Ranariddh … knew that something drastic had to be done in order to bolster flagging fortunes’ and since early 1996 his senior advisers ‘followed a strategy of confrontation and provocation’. According to the White Paper, the strategy of provocation emerged at the royalist party Congress in March 1996, when Ranariddh ‘openly broke with the CPP’ by attacking the coalition government. Ranariddh’s claim that the CPP refused to share power with FUNCINPEC is dismissed as a ‘phony issue’.

Moreover, the White Paper characterized Ranariddh’s attempts to rebuild his power base as part of his strategy to undermine the CPP. His new ‘political alliance’ (the NUF); his ‘military guild-up’ policy, aimed at including Khmer Rouge soldiers in the royalist army; his ‘illegal importation of weapons’ in My; his army’s ‘use of violence and intimidation’; and his attempt to destabilize the government by ‘embracing the Khmer Rouge hard-liners’ – these were all part of Ranariddh’s provocative strategy. Secret and unilateral negotiations with the ‘remnant of Khmer Rouge hard-liners; are described as ‘the most dangerous tactic of all’, an ‘action tantamount to announcing that the coalition government was being terminated. The military build-up and the alliance with the Khmer Rouge was virtually a declaration of war’.

The Crisis in July provided more evidence to substantiate the argument that Ranariddh was the one who attempted a coup. Ranariddh acted, it argued, when Hun Sen and his family were still in Vietnam. Hun Sen had informed the government that ‘he would be on vacation from 1 July 1997 until 7 July 1997’. Ranariddh, however, changed his plan to visit France, leaving Phnom Penh on 4 July instead of waiting until 9 July as previously scheduled. While Ranariddh was aware of the pending coup one day before his departure, Hun Sen was still unaware of what was going on in the country until after the crisis had already erupted on 5 July. Thus, the paper stated, ‘if it had been Hun Sen’s intention to stage the coup, he hardly would have been on vacation abroad’. Ranariddh had started the fight while he was inside the country and Hun Sen outside. Hun Sen had not returned to Phnom Penh until mid-morning of 5 July. Upon his arrival, he appealed for calm. It was not until 1.30am on 6 July that

it was decided that a general ‘mopping up’ operation should be carried out that day, starting at 5.30am. The targets included the Tang Krasaing Barracks, Pochentong area and the houses of General Nhiek Bun Chhay and General Chao Sambath.

What Hun Sen had brought about was not a coup, but a ‘mopping-up operation’ aimed at preventing Ranariddh’s coup and restoring ‘law and order’ in the country.

Hun Sen’s Pre-Emptive Coup

There is no logical and empirical foundation for the ‘Ranariddh Coup’ thesis. The fact that Hun Sen ordered the ‘mopping-up operation’ to deal with the problem of anarchy, as the official documents claimed, proves that what he had brought about was indeed a coup. The fact that he had stayed outside the country before the crisis occurred is irrelevant. Like many coup leaders before him, Hun Sen justified his actions by claiming he would stabilize the political system through a ‘mopping-up operation’.

It may be helpful to discuss what a coup is and what is not. Often the term is confused with a putsch or social revolution. A putsch may be defined as an action directed at overthrowing a political leader by a small group of leaders from outside the existing power establishment, but with some degree of mass following. ‘Revolution’ generally means a deliberate, intentional, and potentially violent overthrow of a government, almost invariably by the military or with the help of the military’. Power is seized by a group within the system, who make no attempt to change society as a whole, but are only interested in removing political leaders from power.

It should be recalled that Prince Ranariddh was the legitimate leader of FUNCINPEC, which garnered the most seats in the Constituent Assembly and was internationally as well as domestically recognized as the winner of the May 1993 elections. In any mature liberal democracy, Hun Sen would never have been appointed as prime minister at all. At best he would have been deputy prime minister, or receive a ministerial portfolio. Thus, the claim that Hun Sen’s action was to prevent Ranariddh’s imminent coup is illogical, since the Prince as First Prime Minister could not overthrow himself as leader of the government.

It is also unclear as to who provoked whom. The Crisis in July sheds light on some of the CPP’s own provocative measures. It describes how two royalist generals (Nhek Bun Chhay, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Cambodian Armed Forces, and Chao Sambath) refused to co-operate with the CPP’s top general Keo Kim Yan (Chief of the General Staff of the Cambodian Armed Forces). Keo Kim Yan asked Nhek Bun Chhay to close down a FUNCINPEC military post at Wat Phniet. This was hardly a reasonable request, and the latter refused to obey. Then, according to the paper,

General Keo Kim Yan ordered that Wat Phniet be surrounded, and at 6.30 [on 5 July] the RCAF [Royal Cambodian Armed Forces] entered the camp and met no resistance. The RCAF forces began disarming the illegal soldiers. They arrested 154 illegal troops and seized 236 firearms and two armoured personnel carriers.

The paper also confirmed that before the fighting broke out at Chao Sambath’s residence, CPP First Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh Chea Sophara (one of Hun Sen’s close allies) called on the Military Police (MP) to negotiate ‘a surrender of illegal weapons’ with the royalist general. This let to the MP approaching Chao Sambath’s residence at about 3pm on 5 July. The paper does not tell how many MP officers were there, but only describes how they were fired on by Chao Sambath’s troops. If this violent incident can be juxtaposed with the one at What Phniet early that morning, Chao Sambath and his troops may have had reason to question the MP’s political motives and to start reacting violently to the latter’s move. This again raises the question of who provoked whom and who had the right to define what was legal or illegal; after all, the royalist troops still belonged to the First Prime Minister, not to any illegitimate faction.

While the CPP may have had legitimate concerns for its own security, it is clear that Hun Sen was not innocent either. The fact that Ranariddh launched the NUF and then negotiated with the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng can be explained by the fact that he had grown vulnerable to Hun Sen. In March 1997, a top royalist leader said a large number of FUNCINPEC members of parliament were afraid to sleep at home and chose to stay at the party head-quarters at night. Royalists felt vulnerable to the CPP’s growing intimidation. As elections scheduled for 1998 approached, FUNCINPEC leaders recalled their bitter experiences with the CPP in the last elections: until May 1993, around 450 royalist party members in forty-six places died at the hands of CPP loyalists. The CPP’s violence against opposition party members is confirmed in the works of former UNTAC officials. Judy Ledgerwood wrote: “The CPP’s efforts to win the elections included several tactics that involved the use of coercive state power.’ She also wrote:

The violence against FUNCINPEC and other legitimate opposition parties was accompanied, whipped up, justified, explained, and covered up by a highly orchestrated propaganda campaign carried out in CPP/SOC media.

David Ashley also confirmed that ‘[from] November 1992 to January 1993 there were repeated attacks against opposition party offices (primarily those of FUNCIPEC) … in virtually every district of Battambang’.

Further evidence suggests that the royalist military build-up and the attempt to strike a peace deal with the Khmer Rouge was in all probability defensive or balancing in nature. According to a document alleged to have belonged to General Nhek Bun Chhay and included in one of the two official documents discussed earlier, the CPP provoked FUNCINPEC. FUNCINPEC’s fear was further reinforced by the royalist party’s internal crisis in mid-April, when a number of its parliamentarians rebelled against the political leadership of Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen was quick to lend his helping hand to the renegades. This new development was seen by Ranariddh as the Second Prime Minister’s unwanted interference in his party’s ‘internal affairs’. A Western diplomat also believed that the royalist army’s move on 5 July to take over Pochentong international airport was only aimed at capturing half of Phnom Penh and forcing Hun Sen to negotiate with FUNCINPEC.

Hun Sen’s decision to launch a ‘mopping-up operation’ was not inconsistent with what he had wanted to do long before the crises. Apparently, Hun Sen had seriously contemplated a coup around June 1997. According to a well-placed CPP source, Hun Sen had asked CPP Minister of Interior Sar Kheng if the latter would go along with his plan to remove Ranariddh from power by force. Sar Kheng did not support the idea and refused to get involved. Since 1 July, a few days before the fighting on 5-6 July broke out, CPP troops began to round up opposition party members in eastern provinces and shot anyone found resisting. This evidence confirms a U.N. report that summary executions started on 2 July – three days before the coup. According to a U.N. report, ‘[most] of the 41-60 instances … occurred between 2 [and] 6 July 1997 or in the following two weeks’. This again suggests that the royalists only reacted to the CPP’s onslaught before the 5-6 July coup. The U.N. report presents concrete evidence of summary executions, torture, and missing persons after 2-7 July 1997, confirms the incineration of a large number of corpses. Those hastily cremated were not even part of the 41-60 cases of execution in custody.

Hun Sen’s swift, decisive seizure of power from Prince Ranariddh at a time when the latter (who had been democratically elected) was no longer in office, therefore, does not theoretically satisfy that action as ‘coup prevention’. It was Hun Sen’s pre-emptive coup: he did not act against Ranariddh because the latter had attempted a coup against him, but because the Prince fought back to keep himself in power.

How is all this to be explained? This article does not place emphasis on the role of ideology as the main cause of the July coup. It would also be too simplistic for anyone to make the case that Hun Sen was ruthless simply because he was a ‘communist dictator’. General Lon Nol, who ousted Prince Sihanouk in 1970, was anti-communist, but was no less a dictator. Nor do Hun Sen’s actions justify anyone who may be tempted to argue that he was a democrat at heart. Even defenders of communist regimes in Indochina like Michael Vickery recognizes Hun Sen’s violent behaviour: ‘[whatever] Hun Sen’s personal qualities … at worst he is no more murderous than his enemies’. Neither of the ideological arguments, therefore, explains his pre-emptive violence. The explanation lies in Cambodia’s fragile hegemonic power structure.

Factionalized Armies and the Imbalance of Military Power

The factionalization of the armed forces is a variable that can help explain the coup, though military forces were not leading actors in the July events. Military leaders did not act independently. The CPP’s military leaders helped Hun Sen drive Prince Ranariddh out of power, but did not aim at grabbing power for themselves. Military leaders remained loyal to their faction heads.

Before the May 1993 elections, the four major factional armies – FUNCINPEC, the CPP, the Khmer Rouge and the BLDP – were unequal in strength. The non-CPP factions had formed the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) in the early 1980’s. Although the exact figures may never be known, the CPP was said to have 131,000 troops, compared with 27,000 for the Khmer Rouge, 27,8000 for the BLDP, and 17,500 for FUNCINPEC. Together, the combined resistance force had only about 72,300 men. In terms of police, the CPP numbered around 47,000, compared with 9,000 Khmer rouge, 400 KPNLF, and 150 FUNCINPEC officers. The CPP thus far outnumbered the resistance groups both individually and collectively. However, while the resistance coalition was not in a position to topple the CPP, neither did it face imminent extinction. What these figures also foreshadowed was that the CPP would continue to enjoy military preponderance after the elections.

Although it may not have been intended to enhance the CPP’s dominant status, the Paris Agreement signed in October 1991 widened the imbalance of military power between the resistance forces and the CPP. This was brought about by the CGDK’s disintegration into three political parties competing for seats in the Constituent Assembly. UNTAC failed to create a truly neutral political environment, giving further advantages to the CPP. Two major UNTAC failures were its inability to disarm each of the factional armies by 70%, as agreed to by the four Cambodian signatories is Paris, and its ineffective control over Cambodian civil administration. Violations of the cease-fire, particularly by the Khmer Rouge, and UNTAC’s inability to allow the non-Khmer Rouge factions keep their own remaining troops for self-defence. In terms of civil administration, ‘[what] UNTAC supposedly controlled, it did not’ and the CPP ‘simply administered around UNTAC’. In subsequent dealings with the CPP after the Khmer Rouge’s defection from the peace plan, UNTAC became ‘too much’ dependent on the CPP’s co-operation, ‘which ruled 80% of the country’.

After the elections, the CPP continued to enjoy military advantages. Reintegration of the factional armed forces by four parties (FUNCINPEC, CPP, BLDP, and Moulinaka) that had competed in the 1993 elections was attempted after they agreed to form a coalition government. On 2 July 1993, the Co-Commander-in-Chief of the National Armed Forces was appointed, followed by the creation of the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff of the National Armed Forces of Cambodia, and the General Staff Headquarters of the National Armed Forces on 14 July, and by the appointment of two co-defence ministers from the CPP and FUNCINPEC on 24 September. The government also adopted a policy of reforming the armed forces. In reality, these integration and reform initiatives failed as factional troops later clashed in provinces, particularly in Battambang. By late 1996, top military officers belonging to the CPP and FUNCINPEC engaged in verbal attacks. In late December, they clashed during press conferences, accusing each other of assassination plots as both tried to woo Khmer Rouge defectors into joining their own force. Armed clashes spilled into 1997. By April, as the situation worsened, Hun Sen threatened publicly to assassinate three royalist leaders. Nhek Bun Chhay was a target. (The other two were apparently General Ho Sok, executed in custody during the coup, and General Serey Kosal, former Deputy Governor of Battambang). In short, then, failure in military reintegration efforts resulted in the continued factionalization of the armed forces and the military preponderance enjoyed by the CPP.

Hun Sen versus Ranariddh, and Their Struggle for Hegemony

Factionalized armies and the growing imbalance of military power alone might not have led to the coup. But as top dog, the Second Prime Minister sought further to solidify his control over the government and the National Assembly6, apparently in the hope that Prince Ranariddh would be unable to challenge him in the next elections. Growing tensions between the royalist and the CPP armies resulted from growing hostilities between Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Hun Sen was not wrong when he put the blame on his rival co-premier for launching the NUF and for dealing with Khmer Rouge, who had agreed to joint the Front. But the Second Prime Minister forgot or chose to ignore the fact that his bid for political hegemony forced the Prince to adopt these desperate measures. Although FUNCINPEC emerged the winner in the 1993 elections, the CPP refused to accept anything less than an even distribution of political power. In Cambodia’s seventeen provinces the number of royalist and CPP governors and deputies was equal, each with thirty-six. Immediately after the elections, the twenty-seven cabinet ministries were made up of thirty-four royalist co-ministers, ministers, and vice-ministers, and thirty-three from the CPP, with Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen being co-prime ministers.

The balance of political power between the two dominant parties later tilted in favour of the CP. FUNCINPEC became internally divided and allowed the CPP to take advantage of the divisions. The royalist party was weakened after its Minister of Finance, Sam Rainsy, was expelled from the Cabinet in 1994 and from the National Assembly in 1995, and after Prince Norodom Sirivudh (King Sihanouk’s half-brother and Ranariddh’s uncle) resigned from his post as minister of foreign affairs. While Sirivudh was replaced by another royalist, Ung Hout, Sam Rainsy was replaced by a CPP member, Keat Chhon. FUNCINPEC was further debilitated by the arrest of Prince Sirivudh, for allegedly plotting to assassinate Hun Sen in late 1995. He was then expelled from the country and went to live in France. Hun Sen even threatened to shoot down the plane that would carry Sirivudh when the latter announced that he would return to Cambodia in late 1996.

Hun Sen also sought to weaken the NUF. On 30 March 1997 a vicious grenade attack was unleashed on a peaceful demonstration led by a major NUF alliance member, the Khmer Nation Party (KNP) headed by Sam Rainsy. Hun Sen’s bodyguards were implicated. According to a U.N. report, the KNP had received written authorization for the demonstration from the Ministry of Interior on the morning of 29 March. Copies of the authorization letter were also sent to the Municipal Police, the Royal Gendarmerie, the District Police, and the Office of the Protection Police. While no protection was given to the demonstrators,

there were heavily armed soldiers in battledress positioned since early that morning [30 March] at about two hundred metres from where the demonstrators were to assemble.

The report adds that

[these] soldiers, who were armed with AK-47’s and B-40 rocket launchers belonged to the Second Prime Minister’s personal bodyguard unit, as he himself later confirmed

and that ‘this was the first time ever that these soldiers were dispatched to a demonstration’. Ironically, these soldiers provided no protection to the demonstrators after the grenade attack. Instead of coming to the victims’ rescue, they ‘took battle position and beat injured demonstrators who were fleeing towards them’. according to eyewitnesses, the soldiers ‘made no attempt to arrest any of those who were seen throwing the grenades’ but ‘protected the escape of two perpetrators’.

Another blow to Ranariddh occurred in mid-April 1997, when a number of royalist party members rebelled against his party presidency and when Hun Sen lent support to these royalist revisionists, who were unhappy with the power status quo within the party. While Hun Sen had conspired with Ranariddh to expel Sam Rainsy and Sirivudh, respectively, from the National Assembly and from Cambodia, Hun Sen refused to let Ranariddh expel royalist party members who challenged his party leadership. This shows clearly that Hun Sen was mainly interested in weakening FUNCINPEC internally 0 and he succeeded in doing so. His actions had nothing to do with legality. While he publicly threatened to assassinate three top royalist leaders in April 1997, FUNCINPEC’s Sirivudh was arrested in late 1995 and finally exiled to France simply because a Cambodian journalist reported that the Prince was talking (or joking) about killing Hun Sen.

Renewed Challenges and Rational Expectations

Still, even the overall imbalance of politico-military power between Hun Sen and Ranariddh does not by itself explain the coup. One has to look beyond power as the only explanatory variable and examine the timing of the coup. If power were the only relevant factor, a coup could have been executed earlier because Hun Sen had already achieved politico-military preponderance well before July 1997. Late May and June have to be seen as a turning point and early July as a breaking point.

Beginning in mid-May and continuing throughout the month of June, peace negotiations between royalist military officials and the Khmer Rouge remnants in Anlong Veng (the only Khmer Rouge stronghold left) were under way. By 1 June, progress had been made; Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan and Prince Ranariddh met at a site near the Thai border and agreed to meet again on 10 June. At this time, however, the Khmer Rouge began to disintegrate as Pol Pot ordered his own ‘defence minister’, Son Sen, and his family slaughtered. Arriving in Anlong Veng on 12 June, Nhek Bun Chhay found the Khmer Rouge at war with itself, an event that led to the arrest of Pol Pot on 19 June. The royalist-Khmer Rouge negotiations continued after that. But it was not until 22 June that the Khmer Rouge leadership agreed to stop calling itself a ‘provisional government’ and join Ranariddh’s NUF.

Early July was the decisive moment. According to Thayer, by 3 July, ‘both sides had hammered out all the details and signed the final agreements’. He goes on to say:

[Negotiators] flew to Phnom Penh to tell [Ranariddh] that everything was done. Ranariddh signed a statement that would be announced first by radio and then read by Khieu Samphan at a July 6 press conference. Negotiators returned to Anlong Veng on July 4 to inform the Khmer Rouge to proceed with the ceremony.

The 5-6 July coup was in part to pre-empt a politico-military alliance between the royalists and the Khmer Rouge that might help Ranariddh to rebound and would pose a new challenge to Hun Sen’s hegemony.

The international circumstances were also favourable to Hun Sen’s move. Just before the coup, the anti-Khmer Rouge donor community also put pressure on the Cambodian Government to get its house in order and to restore political stability for economic development. On 1 and 2 July, at the second Consulative Group Meeting (CGM) in Paris, donors presented their views on what Cambodia needed to do to improve the political environment for economic development. The two U.N. Special Representatives to Cambodia jointly supported ‘Cambodia’s own efforts to establish the Rule of Law, respect for human rights and a free market economy’. The push for political stability necessary for economic development was echoed by the major donors who expressed disappointment at the lack of Cambodia’s progress towards political stability. Germany warned:

Serious downside risks, stemming mainly from political instability, internal insecurity, weak institutions and other deficiencies … are threatening the achievements reached and the prospects for further improvements.

Australia argued that what was lacking in Cambodia was, among other things, a ‘stable political framework’. Japan, Cambodia’s largest donor, also said it was deeply concerned about the public peace getting worse even in Phnom Penh. The U.S. representative, while calling for free, fair, and peaceful elections, warned:

we cannot move forward with effective assistance programs … in the face of political polarization, fears of a return to violence and the reduction in government effectiveness that results.

International financial institutions also raised similar concerns about Cambodia’s domestic political instability and wanted to see more action directed at restoring law and order.

This is not to suggest that the donors had a direct interest in seeing Hun Sen remove Ranariddh from power. Nonetheless, the donors’ strong demand for law and order may have encouraged Hun Sen to act. At the CGM meeting, CPP Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon simply conceded that there had been ‘some violent incidents in the last few months’ and that

some criminal elements can and do exploit … freedom in order to destabilize law and order or to discredit one group or another. Regrettably, certain self-serving and politically motivated sections use such events to malign the country and vilify the leadership.

In his review of the donors’ pressing demand, the minister wrote: ‘The issues of security and political stability remain as the main prerequisites for the development of Cambodia.’ Hun Sen perhaps had not expected the world to react to his violence against Ranariddh as negatively as it did because he was working to restore political stability.

In short, then, Hun Sen’s concern about his political vulnerability led him to view the emerging royalist- Khmer Rouge politico-military alliance as a challenge to his hegemonic standing. He may also have believed that the action he would take against Ranariddh would not upset the world too much: after all, he laid claim to preventing Khmer Rouge remnants returning to power, and thus restoring political stability for the country’s economic development.

The Coup’s Consequences and the Country’s Commotions

The coup that ousted Prince Sihanouk in March 1970 plunged the country into civil war. After that, the Khmer Rouge regime began it reign of terror. A Vietnamese invasion and a U.N. – sponsored election failed to break the vicious cycle. Is the victorious Second Prime Minister now in a position to do what his predecessors had not been able to, namely, achieve political stability? His success in executing the coup may help to keep him in power for a long while, but he may still be vulnerable to coup plots and attempts in the future because of the structural fragility of the state.

Immediately after the coup Hun Sen ordered his troops to push the royalist remnants north towards the Thai-Cambodian border. He sent 800 troops to the new front lines west of Siem Reap province and then mobilized another 1,600 troops, of whom 1,400 came from Kampong Thom and Kampong Cham provinces. By late July the royalists found themselves barely holding on to the key town of Samrong, approximately 330 kilometres northwest of Phnom Penh and 30 kilometres from the Thai border.

By August the royalists were making a quick retreat, and found themselves desperately defending their last stronghold in O Smach on the northern Thai-Cambodian border. The battle for the royalists’ last bastion began on 13 August. In the following weeks, there were many conflicting reports on who cont6rolled the area. As the CPP troops closed in on Smach, more than 40,000 Cambodians took refuge in Thailand. Resistance leaders admitted that O Smach might fall at any time, but claimed that their 3,000 troops were resolved to fight back. At year’s end, however, the CPP troops had still failed to capture the area. The royalist force’s ability to withstand the CPP’s onslaught depended heavily on the Khmer Rouge troops from Anglong Veng, who came to areas in O Smach.

Will the Cambodian adversaries be willing to reach a cease-fire? Definitely, as the inferior forces, the royalists and the Khmer Rouge may not find it too difficult to accept any agreement that would prevent them from being slaughtered by the CPP army. But the CPP cannot be expected to accept any conditions from the resistance groups unless the latter agree to disarm and voluntarily subject themselves to government control. Hun Sen has succeeded in punishing his rivals and pushing them against the Thai border. He would not, in all probability, demand anything less than the latter’s total surrender. This kind of condition will in all likelihood keep the conflict protracted.

CPP officials now claim that their party rules unchallenged. And according to one top CPP official, ‘no one can challenge Hun Sen. The only way to keep Hun Sen down is for those inside the party to soften him up from within.’ The CPP is apparently divided: Chea Sim (CPP President) and Sar Kheng (CPP Minister of Interior), and former party President Heng Samrin now belong to one faction; Hun Sen and his supporters belong to the other. However, Hun Sen has emerged as the undisputed leader despite the apparent schism. Chea Sim was said to fear Hun Sen as he feared a tiger. Sar Kheng could not do anything against Chief of the National Police Hok Lundy (one of Hun Sne’s reliable allies) despite the fact that the latter was under his authority. After the coup, Sar Kheng urged U.N. Representative Hammarberg to put more pressure on Hun Sen.

Unlike the CPP, whose political alliance with other small parties remained intact, the NUF automatically disappeared after the coup. FUNCINPEC as a political party has also disintegrated past the point of no return. Most of its members chose to bandwagon with Hun Sen for short-term security or for rewards. After being ‘elected’ as first prime minister, Ung Huot joined Hun Sen in calling for legal action against Ranariddh and Pol Pot for their crimes against humanity. Other royalist leaders not only competed to take over the job of the overthrown Prince Ranariddh, they also moved to form their own political parties.

The anti-CPP Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD), formed in Thailand after the coup, seems to be growing weaker and weaker as its members became fragmented. The internal weaknesses were exposed by Son Chhay, a member of parliament (the BLDP Son Sann faction), who said that exiled politicians disliked Ranariddh’s management style and even blamed him for creating the events in July. Son Chhay himself had fundamental differences with other members of the UCD.

Seeds of Decline?

Despite a superficially impregnable position, Hun Sen’s ‘unipolar world’ might collapse one day if he does not adopt a strategy of benign hegemony. Compared with previous leaders, such as Sihanouk, the Second Prime Minister does not enjoy widespread legitimacy. Hun Sen is not a prince as Sihanouk was. In Cambodian society, popularity still irrationally rests on traditional thinking that ‘without a king, the kingdom will be shattered’. Hun Sen was a peasant, a former Khmer Rouge fighter, and came to power after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in late 1978. Unlike Sihanouk, who had driven the French out of Cambodia, Hun Sen is viewed by his enemies as someone who invited Vietnam into the country. The fact that the CPP lost the 1993 elections further reveals that Hun Sen was not highly popular despite his military preponderance and hi party’s use of violence. If Prince Sihanouk could be ousted in early 1970, Hun Sen cannot be invincible.

Beside his lack of traditional legitimacy, Hun Sen has failed to gain a clear sense of performance legitimacy. He still presides over a weak state and a relatively strong society. The bureaucracy is incompetent and corrupt, and administrative reform has so far failed. The government’s commitment to an initial 20 per cent reduction in the 144,000-strong civil service by the end of 1997 failed to meet its goal; by the end of 1996 the public sector had increased to 163,206. Even with large budgetary support from foreign donors – about half the state budget – the government remained cash-strapped.

With meagre financial resources and a grossly inefficient bureaucratic structure, Hun Sen’s preponderance has depended on, and will continue to rely on, the military and security establishment. Will his general fight for him? As long as he continues to indulge their corruption, he will certainly obtained their loyalty. Such indulgence, however, will frustrate his reform efforts and jeopardize his attempts to build the state. Cambodian history has shown that a corrupt military leadership is ultimately self-destructive. President Lon Nol (who led the country from 1970 to 1975) ws defeated at the hands of the Khmer Rouge because he had turned a blind eye to his generals’ rampant corruption. If Hun Sen is unwilling to discipline his generals, for the purpose of maintaining their loyalty to him, he will jeopardize his own efforts to reform the public administration. Moreover, if Hun Sen does not have adequate financial means to meet the military and security apparatus needs – a situation becoming more difficult because of reduced foreign aid – they would rebel against him. Growing military dissatisfaction during the second half of the 1960’s, rooted in the termination of U.S. aid to Cambodia, contributed to Sihanouk’s eventual demise.

While he may now enjoy the absence of subversive foreign interference, he does not have a foreign patron who is willing and able to lend massive financial and military support as the Soviet Union and Vietnam did for the PRK/SOC during the 1980’s. donors continued to give humanitarian aid to Cambodia, but Hun Sen no longer receives military aid from Western states such as Australia and the United States. Cambodia also failed to gain admission into ASEAN in July, and the United Nations left the Cambodian seat vacant in September.

Growing poverty and potential military dissatisfaction are a recipe for coup plots and attempts. Hun Sen might be able to beat back his challengers a few more times, but he would not have the capability to win all the time. A future coup, however, will not be of a pre-emptive nature, but will be a ‘rear-end collusion’ kind of coup. That is, those who have now chosen to remain silent or bandwagoned with Hun Sen – either out of fear or for short-term rewards and security gains – may one day decide to bring him down because they feel threatened by his unchecked power.


This article contends that what happened in early July was Hun Sen’s Preemptive coup. The coup arose from a situation where Hun Sen wished to enforce his hegemonic position by preventing enfeebled challengers bouncing back.

Although Hun Sen seems to have achieved a degree of political stability, what he has done still keeps Cambodia highly vulnerable to coup plots and attempts, largely because his successes resulted from the use of force that temporarily drove his opponents out of power and frightened others into bandwagoning with him for short-term protection and rewards. Hun Sen and his rivals still operate within an environment where the ‘politics of survival’ prevails over concern for morality and justice. Unless Hun Sen and other Cambodian leaders learn that a violent struggle for hegemony at all costs will not pay in the long run, but will only keep them in a state of perpetual war, they will never agree to compete for legitimate power through the ballot-box in a free and fair manner.

Hun Sen's Pre-Emptive Coup 1997 Causes and Consequences

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