Phnom Penh Post
By Nate Thayer
Friday, 15 July 1994
The Post's Nate Thayer describes how he shared Prince Chakrapong's final hours in Cambodia after receiving a dramatic 6:30 am phone call.
Loyalist troops had taken positions throughout the capital on the night of July 2 as rumors swept the city that a coup attempt was imminent. Heavily armed soldiers were positioned outside the homes of government leaders and military installations by dark, and the children of senior officials were ordered to stay out of the city nightclubs.
Officials confirmed "there will be trouble tonight" and spoke of a coup attempt.
At 3:00 am government forces surrounded the houses of the alleged putsch leaders, who they named as former Interior Minister Sin Song and former Deputy Prime Minister Prince Norodom Chakrapong.
Their houses were invaded, and weapons and communication equipment seized. Sin Song was arrested and allegedly confessed to his role in launching a coup. Chakrapong had fled his house hours before security forces arrived.
At 6:30 am a call to this reporter said "call this number" and hung up. A jittery voice answered after I dialed the mobile phone. "This is Prince Chakrapong. Please, please help me," he said in a frightened broken whisper, "Come right away to the Regent hotel. They have surrounded me. They are trying to kill me."
In the 20 minutes it took for me to arrive, the Prince called me seven times begging for me to come quickly. "I am alone. Please, before they kill me, come now. Call the American Embassy and tell them my life is in danger."
He was obviously hoping that a foreign presence might prevent the security forces from harming him.
Government troops and security forces armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, and carrying walkie talkies were positioned on the street corners and entrance ways around the hotel near Monivong Boulevard when I arrived on the otherwise quiet early Sunday morning. But no one tried to stop me, probably thinking I was a hotel guest.
Inside, hotel workers, white with fear, stared blankly in response to my inquiry of where the alleged coup leader was staying. But maids hovering in an upstairs hallway, opened Room 401.
A disheveled, barefoot, and petrified son of King Sihanouk was found emerging from a crawl space above the ceiling of his hotel room, begging for help.
"Please, they are trying to arrest me. They will kill me. I am innocent. Please tell the American Ambassador to come right away. I need protection," the wide-eyed Prince said, near tears, and jittery from lack of sleep. He was alone. The bed was still made, and the curtains were drawn. A ceiling panel was removed revealing a small dark crawl space. A chair was under it to allow one to climb up. He said troops had been surrounding him since 3:00 am.
"I hear the rumor that I plan to make a coup d'etat. I am innocent. I have nothing in my hands. I have no political influence now. I have no troops," he said. "Please don't leave me."
So began a four-and-a-half-hour drama that, after scores of frantic phone calls and negotiations, ended with the Prince being whisked to the airport by military escort and forcibly exiled via a scheduled Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Frightened hotel staff hovered in hallways and peeked out of rooms in the otherwise completely silent hotel.
Realizing that there was no press or diplomats aware of the developments, and I was alone with a hunted, hated alleged coup plotter. Surrounded by troops clearly prepared to invade, I opted to rent my own room down the hall, with a better view of the troops, street, and hotel entrance way.
I went downstairs to the front desk asked for Room 406 and handed over cash. The desk clerk stared with a furrowed brow look of fear and alarm, said nothing, and handed me the key.
I thought that it might diminish the incentive of the troops outside to act precipitously if I was in a room rented under my own name, and buy time to interview the Prince. The Prince thought it was a great idea and came over to Room 406.
I made a quiet call to senior government contacts and diplomats informing them of the situation, hoping that they would get the message to the troops downstairs - quickly.
My phone rang a few minutes later, saying that Co-Prime Minister Ranariddh was aware I was with the man who allegedly was trying to topple his government and assassinate top officials.
The three mobile phones in my room rang constantly. More than 40 calls came in within the first two hours, as Chakrapong desperately tried to delay the troops from arresting him, and attempted to convince US Ambassador Charles Twining to give him political asylum.
Chakrapong repeatedly denied to me that he was involved in any coup attempt, cursed the leaders of the government, begged for my help and asked me not to leave him if the troops invaded.
He fielded phone calls constantly on his two phones, often listening silently and hanging up, speaking in English, French, and Khmer.
King Norodom Sihanouk rang from Beijing. "I am alright Papa, but the situation is bad. They have surrounded me," he said at one point.
As more calls came in he broke down and again moist-eyed. He looked dejected as Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk kept him up to date from Beijing with the state of her negotiations with government leaders over allowing him exile.
"It is not the Queen, but as my parents. It is not politics, it is as a son," he told me when asked whether King Sihanouk and Queen Monineath supported him.
For the first two hours, he was in fear of his life, convinced that if arrested he would be killed.
"They tell me that if we criticize the government, we are serving the interests of the Khmer Rouge. If I am arrested, the embassies must stay with me, to keep looking for me. Please don't let them take me anywhere. Please don't leave me alone," he said to me.
The Prince asked me to contact the US Embassy to request political asylum. I give him the mobile telephone number of the US Ambassador Charles Twining. He calls and Twining is put on the phone. "I ask your protection, your excellency. It is a human right. If you don't come to protect me I prefer not to go outside. I prefer to die here. I will stay here in the room. How can I trust them if they bring me somewhere?", he says to Twining.
Prince Chakrapong's face shows that the American Ambassadors response is not positive. "Please your excellency, if they bring me outside, if they arrest me, they will kill me."
Chakrapong hung up from Twining and went to look outside. The street was quiet save for troops standing guard. "Twining says 'you are not an American citizen, we cannot help you,' " he said.
"They say this is a liberal democracy," staring from behind the curtain down at the soldiers, "They are silencing all opposition now. We will all be accused of serving the interests of the Khmer Rouge. The whole world must know that this regime accuses me without proof. If the free world helps this regime it is the end of democracy."
Another American diplomat called my phone: "Tell Chakrapong he is not a US citizen. As long as the government proceeds in a legal fashion regarding his human rights, there is nothing we can do to interfere in a sovereign government."
But the American message of rejection of official protection was clear.
Crying young hotel maids burst into the room at one point: "The soldiers are coming. They are inside now."
A disheveled Prince - barefoot, shirt unbuttoned, sleepless, and dejected-began to put on his shoes. He handed me his wallet and mobile telephones and asked me to give them to his daughters. "Please make sure my daughters are alright. The soldiers invaded my house last night and they were there."
But the soldiers didn't come in. And the phones rang incessantly, sometimes three at the same time. At one point, Chakrapong had King Sihanouk on the line in one hand, and Twining on the other.
The Queen was still negotiating for safe passage out of the country.
Finally Prime Minister Ranariddh - Chakrapong's nemesis and half brother - agreed to allow the Prince to leave the country. "If I am allowed to join my family in Malaysia, I will accept," he said at one point.
By 10 am we saw Twining, other diplomats, and press begin to gather on the street, to the great relief of the Prince.
"I have given ten years of my life for my country for nothing. They are looking for a plane for me," he said after hanging up from a call from the queen.
"I want you to tell them I am innocent. I am a military man. I know how to make a coup. Now, I have no power and no forces. How can I make a coup? If I was to do something would I stay here in Phnom Penh?
"I left last night with no bodyguards to come to the hotel because I felt something was wrong. Like when I was in the jungle. I knew on the battlefield when something bad would happen. But I was not afraid because I was innocent."
The military called from downstairs to say that the troops were coming to our room now and that the Prince would be allowed to leave the country.
He turned to me: "Please do not leave me. I will only leave if you go with me to the airport in the same car. They may not take me to the airport."
There was a strong knock on the door and I went to open it. A score of heavily armed soldiers and security police waited in the hallway as Twining and Co-Minister of Interior You Hockry entered alone. The four of us sat down.
Hockry asked me to leave. Prince Chakrapong asked that I stay. I said nothing.
"We will promise your safety to the airport. I promise there will be no guns on the plane. The best thing for us it to bring you safely to the airport," Hokry told the Prince.
Men were sent to get passports and luggage at Chakrapong's house. A Malaysian Airlines plane was held on the tarmac at Pochentong as Chakrapong was assured that he would be allowed to safely leave the country.
The behavior of several Ministry of Interior police, who were poised to arrest the Prince until minutes before, now went through a bizarre somersault. They entered the room crouched on their knees and hands clasped to their heads in deference to Royalty as they went about their business preparing to send him to exile.
The Interior Minister said that Chakrapong's alleged collaborator, Sin Song, had confessed. "I think that one or two people cannot do this kind of thing. There will be more arrests," he said. Chakrapong stared blankly, with a mixed expression of anger and fear.
At one point, while, we waited for the motorcade and luggage downstairs, Twining turned to Hockry.
"I just remembered, there will be a fireworks display this afternoon at the fourth of July celebration," he said, suddenly realizing that, as a jittery city emerged from an attempted coup, explosions in the city might not be timely.
"Do you have authorization?" the Minister shot back to the Ambassador, with an alarmed look on his face.
When the mobile phone rang to say that the motorcade of troops was ready, we left the room to walk to the street. Hotel staff and soldiers clasped their hands and knelt in respect as Chakrapong was led by a bevy of sunglassed, automatic weapon-toting officials through a throng of cameras waiting on the street.
Shoved into a sleek Toyota with black tinted windows, we were whisked to the airport in a convoy of a score of cars, including one with Twining. Streets were blocked off and hundreds of people lined them to watch the motorcade pass. The plane was waiting at the airport, full of curious passengers, as Chakrapong was whisked on board and the flight departed.
He called several hours later from Malaysia saying: " I want to thank you sincerely for saving my life. They would have killed me if you had not come. I am innocent. I was not involved in anything. Tell them I am innocent."