Security jitters while PMs away
By Nate Thayer
(Note: The Phnom Penh Post, and its Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Michael Hayes, at a news conference held by the Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Khanharith, was informed that a criminal complaint was filed against the Post and Hayes personally for the publication of the below article. Khanharith said the case was filed by both Prime Ministers and the charges were “disseminating disinformation” and “creating political instability”. After a substantial international reaction, the government never pursued the charges.)
Phnom Penh Post
Mar 24 - April 6, 1995
The absence of much of the country's leadership while attending
ICORC in Paris earlier this month set off a chain of events reflecting the
deep distrust dividing the three primary factions within the government and
official jitters about activities of critics outside of the government.
While life in the city remained normal and serene on the surface,
behind the scenes various political power blocs were on the alert for
perceived enemies. Rumors of possible demonstrations, coup attempts,
prison breakouts and palace intrigue swept government military and
intelligence circles 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 since last
August that both prime ministers had been absent from the country at the
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
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 Mar 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
On Saturday, Mar 11, Sar Kheng dispatched "several hundred"
security personnel on high alert to monitor "unusual movements around the
city by military [personnel and] 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 Mar 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,
Mar 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 wil 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, Mar 16 by
"military personnel, intellectuals, and students. Their slogans were the
necessity of national reconciliation, support 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
"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, Mar 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 [should] 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 King departed for Beijing Mar 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 Mar 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 govenrment 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 Mar 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 plain clothes guards on Mar 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 to Sin Sen by family and doctors were suspended ,
according to prison officials. You Hokry acknowledged the increased
security at T-3, when contacted by the POST on Mar 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.
The 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 of khmer Rouge
terrorism. "These rumors of manifestations ["demonstrations"] are mainly rumors with no substance when you look behind each one. They may be creating an atmosphere to use 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 Centre 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 ammounts 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
On the night of Mar 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 Assembly [and] not allow it to be an independent force."
Prime Minister Ranariddh said last week, "I am sorry Sam Rainsy was
finance minister. I am sorry he is in Funcinpec. I am sorry he is a