Security Jitters While PM's Away
Phnom Penh Post
Friday, 24 March 1995
By Nate Thayer
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 prime ministers.
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 sources.
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 possible disturbances.
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 demonstrations."
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 disturbances.
"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 time."
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."
"We 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 leadership."
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 22.
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."
According to 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.
Government 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.
One 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 unrest.
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.
On the 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 said.
The bodyguards were the same personnel who had protected Rainsy before he was sacked last September as finance minister.
Senior 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."
Prime Minister 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."