Violence Poisoned Nation, Funcinpec Officials Counter
Although the factional fighting that broke out three years ago caused hundreds of deaths, some government officials of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party say the battles were, in some ways, worth the lives that were lost.
Since Funcinpec was colluding with the Khmer Rouge to oust then co-Prime Minister Hun Sen from power, they maintain, the violent regime that is responsible for the deaths of more than one million Cambodians would have been in control of the country again if the CPP had lost.
“The Khmer Rouge would have taken over,” Khieu Kanharith, who is the government’s spokesman as he was during the 1997 fighting, said Wednesday. “It’s like a tumor you have to bleed out. You can’t avoid bloodshed. This is the price you have to pay.”
They also say that if the fighting hadn’t occurred, CPP and Funcinpec would still be quarreling with each other and competing for power.
“The fighting was good because it ended instability,” Deputy Prime Minister and Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng said by telephone Tuesday. “It must be like this. If we didn’t have the fighting, how bad would the political environment and security be now?”
Sao Sokha, commander of the national military police, agreed this week and said it’s useless to now try to place blame on anyone for the 1997 events.
“Nobody is wrong and nobody is right,” he said. “We should blame the fighting.”
However, Funcinpec Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay, who was the top general of royalist forces during the factional fighting, vehemently disagreed Wednesday. He said by telephone that the fighting brought stability and also said the Khmer Rouge would not have been in power if his forces had won.
“This situation is stable now not because of the fighting, but because of national reconciliation, cooperation and the (1998) elections,” he said. “And if Funcinpec had won, Funcinpec would have governed the country, not the Khmer Rouge.”
A Funcinpec secretary of state official who also served in the 1993-97 government said it is impossible to think the fighting brought stability.
“People were killed in the fighting so how could it bring stability?” he asked.
Nhiek Bun Chhay also denied that Funcinpec and the Khmer Rouge were planning to try to kick Hun Sen and his CPP colleagues out of power.
But Hour Sareth, a CPP military adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen who was a Funcinpec military officer before the 1997 fighting, claimed that in 1996, he met with Khmer Rouge forces in their stronghold in Anlong Veng province to discuss their strategy to take over the country.
“Nhiek Bun Chhay sent me to Anlong Veng, where I met Pol Pot, (General) Khem Tem, Ta Mok,” Hour Sareth said. “We talked about a map of how we would fight.”
Once Funcinpec took over Phnom Penh, Khmer Rouge forces in the provinces would attack to control the rest of the country, he said. Anlong Veng would attack Siem Reap, Malai would take over Banteay Meanchey province, guerrilla forces from Pailin and Samlot were responsible for Pursat and Battambang provinces, while Phnom Voar combatants would go after Sihanoukville and Kampot and Koh Kong provinces.
Former Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng recently said a plan was in place to attack Siem Reap if Phnom Penh was secured.
But Nhiek Bun Chhay said Hour Sareth wasn’t even a Funcinpec soldier and that he met him only once. He said he never sent Hour Sareth to Anlong Veng.
However, he said he did meet with Khmer Rouge before the fighting to do work for the government, but he would not elaborate.
Tep Kunnal, a top leader in the Khmer Rouge during their last years of existence, said he met with Nhiek Bun Chhay three times to discuss the formation of the National League—a coalition between the Khmer Rouge, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party.
“We met near Pol Pot’s house,” said Tep Kunnal, who is married to Pol Pot’s second wife, Mea Son. “We tested each other to see if the other was sincere. We said that the National League was the only force that could stand up to Hun Sen’s party.”
Tep Kunnal said Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan and then co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh signed an agreement to form the coalition. During the factional fighting, Hun Sen pointed to the agreement as evidence of plans to overthrow him.
CPP officials say Funcinpec could have won the battle in Phnom Penh because the party had more troops in the capital that weekend and was well equipped. But Funcinpec’s aggressiveness waned, allowing CPP forces to go on the offensive, they say.
“Funcinpec had troops from the provinces so they didn’t care if they destroyed Phnom Penh,” Khieu Kanharith said. “But all of the CPP troops’ families lived in Phnom Penh so if it got bad, they would’ve stopped fighting and gone to their families.”
Top CPP officials had decided on the night of July 5, 1997, the first day of the fighting, that if their forces could not contain their enemy and if Funcinpec troops reached Wat Phnom, they would evacuate from Phnom Penh, Khieu Kanharith said.
CPP officials claim that the first shots were fired by Funcinpec forces near the home of Chao Sambath, a top Funcinpec intelligence officer who was killed in the factional fighting.
But Nhiek Bun Chhay says CPP forces began the attack by surrounding a Funcinpec military base near Pochentong Airport.
“If we are surrounded, we must attack,” he said. “We did not expect victory.”
Sorm Sarin, a Funcinpec deputy commander of Military Region 4, also said that the royalist forces were just defending themselves.
“We did not open fire on anyone,” he said. “We had no plans to take over.”
Three years after the fighting, Khieu Kanharith said the nation gained wisdom from the street battles.
“Because of lessons from the past, we don’t see many Rambos in Phnom Penh,” he said.
Kek Galabru, founder of the local human rights group Licadho, said she hopes the two parties have learned to resolve their differences through elections instead of resorting to violence.
“How many were killed in the fighting? How bad was the economic situation after the fighting?” she asked. “The fighting was not worth anything at all.”
Although there is peace now, lingering issues from the factional fighting remain, such as whether anyone responsible for the extrajudicial killings of prominent Funcinpec police and military officers will be brought to justice.
Sar Kheng said government investigations are continuing but results are not expected soon.
CPP General Meas Sophea, who is deputy commander of the army, said an investigation is useless because people die in times of war.
“When both sides spray water on each other, people must be killed,” he said.
But Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said the government has a moral responsibility to pursue the perpetrators of the extrajudicial killings, no matter how long it takes.
“It points to the question of whether Cambodia as a nation has a conscious,” he said. “But regimes change and the culprits from the 1997 fighting should not feel safe. Justice can still be done.”