For all the rumors of coup d’etat plots swirling around the capital in the first half of 1997, few ordinary Phnom Penh residents waking up the morning of Saturday, July 5 were expecting the kind of weekend that unfolded.
Rising tensions between the ruling coalition partners in the preceding weeks had put many diplomats on high alert that a major confrontation was in the cards. Funcinpec’s accusations of CPP coup plots and attempts to split the party were traded with CPP accusations of Funcinpec attempts to win the military support of the hard-line Khmer Rouge.
But as the sound of shelling and shooting rang out over the capital, the majority of city residents remained in the dark about who had launched the first open battle on the streets of Phnom Penh since 1975.
“It would seem that mortars, B-40 rockets and burning tanks would be unambiguous,” wrote New York Times correspondent Seth Mydans. “But not in Cambodia. There was no question that people were shooting at each other, and sometimes in our direction. But it was hard to know what was really going on.”
Inevitably, wildly differing versions of the conflict emerged from each side caught up in it. As the fighting intensified on Saturday afternoon, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared on television to denounce his coalition partner, then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, for allegedly destabilizing national security by bringing Khmer Rouge fighters into the capital.
Defense co-Minister Tea Banh then summoned the city’s diplomatic corps to reassure them the fighting was a operation to expunge the “illegal forces” from the capital and that significant fighting had ceased. But even as he spoke, the sound of heavy artillery rang out nearby. When asked to explain why there was fighting so near the Ministry of Defense, Tea Banh could not answer.
Diplomats’ suspicions were aroused on two counts. Either the CPP really was unprepared for what was going on, despite their characterization of the battle as a “mopping-up operation;” or else Tea Banh had not been fully included in the planning of a factionalized hit carried out by police and commando units and few forces of the regular army.
It was to take Prince Ranariddh, the target of the accusations, a little longer to launch his version of events. It came Sunday morning, in a Voice of America broadcast, when from an undisclosed location, later identified as Paris, the prince denounced his coalition partner for launching “a bitter and barbarous coup d’etat.” Safely out of the country, he embarked on a world tour of potential sympathizers in the international community to win support for his claim he had been militarily ousted.
By Sunday evening in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen and his forces may have won the military battle, but with the “help” of CNN’s coverage, they were rapidly losing the public relations war. Enter the White Paper, an eloquent justification for the fighting drafted with the assistance of a US lawyer and entitled “Prince Ranariddh’s Strategy of Provocation.”
It was, in the words of one observer, “a remarkable thing to have achieved in the five days since the first shots were fired.” Carefully researched and footnoted, it laid out the thesis that Prince Ranariddh had precipitated the conflict with a military build-up stretching back over the preceding 18 months.
In an attempt to achieve military parity with the CPP, which controlled the bulk of the armed forces, the prince had looked to the remaining Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng to gain, in the words of the report, “the military support that these recalcitrant communists could bring.” In addition, the paper asserted, a cache of weapons addressed to the prince seized by port authorities in May were intended to arm the forces against the CPP.
But largely ignored in the paper were the reasons why the prince’s side believed it necessary to build up its firepower. One military analyst said evidence suggests the CPP themselves had long been making preparations to take on Funcinpec on the battlefield.
“There are signs that maybe they were preparing for a long time, by cultivating militia units,” he said this week. Before long, the search for extra military strength was to turn both parties towards the last non-allied militia in the country: the Khmer Rouge.
One Asian diplomat pointed to the July 1996 defection of Ieng Sary and his Phnom Malai and Pailin-based group as the beginning of a race between the two prime ministers to win military support and credit for bringing the rebels back into the government fold under the banner of national reconciliation.
“The whole issue boils down to a competition between the two prime ministers. The Ieng Sary initiative was basically done by the second prime minister,” the diplomat said, charging it was the success on that front that turned Prince Ranariddh towards Anlong Veng in a bid to win over the hard-liners.
But analysts, diplomats and human rights workers agree that no compelling evidence has ever come to light that the prince actually brought rebel hard-liners into Phnom Penh, as Hun Sen has charged.
Rather, said another diplomat, the excuse of illegally imported weapons and the political or military threat posed by the prince’s negotiations with the rebels simply provided the CPP with a pretext to launch an assault and gain the military upperhand before the ink could dry on any agreement to bring in the remaining Khmer Rouge.