Rebel Group Outlawed by Cambodia; Thais Implicated In Coup Attempt
Cambodia today passed controversial legislation to outlaw the Khmer Rouge rebel group, raising tensions in a government still jittery from a weekend coup attempt.
After the 98 to 1 vote in the National Assembly, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who holds the title of first prime minister in a shaky coalition government, called on all countries to bar Khmer Rouge members from their territory and "arrest those outlaws" who he said will be named on government lists of Khmer Rouge officials. His remarks were aimed primarily at neighboring Thailand, where military officers and businessmen have long maintained ties with the notorious communist guerrilla group.
At the same time, however, Ranariddh publicly accused Thai citizens of involvement in the coup plot, which was apparently directed against him and his royalist Funcinpec party by hard-line supporters of the Cambodian People's Party, his main coalition partner.
So far, authorities have arrested 14 Thais connected to a Cambodian general who confessed to involvement in the plot, and a number of others are being sought. Ranariddh said they included a Thai police official and nine Thai specialists in radio communications, weapons and explosives.
According to Cambodian officials and diplomats, the heavy emphasis on Thai involvement appears partly intended to deflect attention from the role in the plot of senior officials of the coalition government. The sources said the coup attempt, which had been in the works for months, stemmed from a broad-based plot by hard-liners in the People's Party to stifle growing dissent among their partners in Funcinpec. The royalist party won last year's U.N.-sponsored elections but has been unable to wrest real power from the formerly communist People's Party, which had ruled Cambodia since 1979 but finished second in last year's voting.
Strains within the coalition intensified after the People's Party rejected a suggestion by King Norodom Sihanouk in mid-June that a national unity government be formed that would include the Khmer Rouge. Today's legislation to outlaw the radical guerrilla group, accused of killing 1 million people while it held power in the late 1970s, has exacerbated splits within the government. Some Funcinpec leaders described it as a move to further sideline Sihanouk and consolidate the People's Party's grip on power.
On Wednesday, security forces arrested Gen. Sin Sen, the number-two official in the powerful Interior Ministry, on charges of involvement in the conspiracy.
The coup attempt started when a dozen armored personnel carriers and 300 rebel troops left the eastern province of Prey Veng for the capital late Saturday afternoon. It ended Sunday when supporting elements failed to materialize and a distraught Prince Norodom Chakrapong, Ranariddh's estranged half-brother and one of the alleged coup leaders, was allowed to fly into exile in Malaysia after pleading for his life in frantic negotiations by mobile phone from a Phnom Penh hotel room.
Chakrapong, 49, a son of King Sihanouk, initially eluded arrest and went into hiding in Phnom Penh's Regent Hotel. From there, he contacted this reporter at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, begging me to come quickly to the hotel in apparent hopes that the presence of a foreign journalist would prevent security forces from killing him.
What followed was a bizarre 4 1/2-hour drama in which the terrified prince engaged in desperate phone negotiations with Cambodian intermediaries, the American ambassador and, in calls from Beijing, King Sihanouk and Queen Monique.
After making my way past government troops and security forces posted outside the hotel with machine guns and rocket launchers, I found Chakrapong, disheveled, barefoot and wide-eyed with fear, emerging from a crawlspace above the ceiling of his room.
"Please, they are trying to arrest me," he pleaded. "They will kill me. I am innocent. Please tell the American ambassador to come right away. I need protection."
Agitated and near tears, he repeatedly denied any involvement in the coup attempt, cursed government leaders and begged me not to leave him in case troops invaded the hotel. He fielded calls constantly on two mobile phones, speaking in English, French and Khmer.
At one point he had Sihanouk on the phone in one hand and U.S. Ambassador Charles Twining on the line in the other. But it was his stepmother, Queen Monique, who appeared to take a leading role in negotiating with government leaders on Chakrapong's behalf to let him leave the country.
"I am all right, Papa, but the situation is bad," he told Sihanouk at one point. "They have surrounded me."
He pleaded with Twining for political asylum but was told the embassy could not help him. Twining eventually showed up at the hotel and joined Interior Minister You Hokry in discussions with Chakrapong on his departure from the country.
"I am a military man," Chakrapong told me in protesting his innocence before being whisked to the airport in a heavily armed convoy. "I know how to make a coup. Now I have no power and no forces. How can I make a coup?"