What’s in a name? Would a coup by any other term have gained the UN seat?
Even as the artillery fire echoed over Phnom Penh last year, another battle had begun—this one over what to call the fighting.
Within hours, Prince Norodom Ranariddh had called the factional fighting—which his troops lost—a “coup d’etat.” Hun Sen rejected the term, saying his troops were “solving anarchic problems.”
Soon, everyone began to choose their words very carefully.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on June 9 of this year called the fighting a “political crisis.” Asean referred June 10 to the “unfortunate circumstances” in Cambodia.
King Norodom Sihanouk refused to help clarify. “I cannot cast myself in the role of ‘judge’ with regard to a ‘coup’ or a ‘non-coup d’etat,’” the monarch wrote last July 13.
The Cambodia Daily opted not to describe the events as a coup d’etat, instead variously using “factional fighting,” “CPP’s decisive military victory over Funcinpec,” and the “July 5-6 disturbances.” Eventually, it settled on the “effective ouster of Prince Norodom Ranariddh.” (Well, it certainly WAS effective.)
Why all the linguistic gymnastics?
For one thing, the choice of words can mean taking political sides. And once uttered, the “c-word” is hard to take back.
And there was and is more at stake than simple semantics. The terminology used can often influence policy toward Cambodia.
The US, for example, is obligated to cut all aid to any government that took power in a coup d’etat. So the US has never officially called the ouster of Prince Ranariddh a coup.
That, however, did not stop the US from pushing to keep a delegation from the new Hun Sen-Ung Huot government from being seated at the UN General Assembly. After a US spokesman referred to “a regime which seized power through undemocratic means,” the UN decided to keep the seat open until after this year’s elections.
It was one of the few victory’s Prince Ranariddh’s faction had in the war over words.
While foreign media and human rights groups may refer to “Hun Sen’s coup d’etat,” the UN, Asean and most nations still avoid the term. And, it can be argued that people’s avoidance of the word is a victory for Hun Sen, even if people don’t exactly call the fighting a “necessary suppression of anarchic forces.”
Most who live and work in Phnom Penh now tactfully avoid the c-word, at least in public. The most often used terms are “the events of July 5-6” (vague and non-committal, yet accurate) and “the fighting” (narrow focus, no judgments).
Still, get a person alone or at a bar, and they might say coup. Somehow, the word just rolls off the tongue easier than the official government line: “an act of the government to defend the national security and public order.”
That’s what CPP member Svay Sitha calls the fighting last year. He maintains that the “events” do not match up to the dictionary definition of a coup d’etat.
“A coup is an illegal transfer of power from one leader to another,” Svay Sitha said Wednesday. “This government is still intact. The second prime minister remains, and the first prime minister is still in Funcinpec.”
Prince Ranariddh and his allies, however, use “coup” as often as possible, frequently preceding it with “bloody” for added effect.
Son Soubert, National Assembly second vice president and leader of the Son Sann Party, caused a furor when he returned from seven months in self-exile and referred to the “coup d’etat of July 5-6” on his first day back in parliament.
“Of course, I still call it a coup d’etat because there was a change of power,” Son Soubert said Wednesday. “When you use force to solve problems that should be in court, it is a coup d’etat.”