Election Another Test for Senator’s Bodyguard

Last Tuesday a bodyguard of Funcinpec Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay, 23-year-old Thai Bunra, went to visit his mother in Bat­tambang province’s Sampov Luon district. Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, the CPP’s top candidate for the province, was there campaigning.

Sitting in a Battambang hotel room Thursday evening, Thai Bunra spoke of an incident two days earlier. “A man ap­proached me and told me to go to Phnom Penh. He said, ‘It’s useless that you stay with Nhiek Bun Chhay. Nhiek Bun Chhay will be arrested soon. Go to see Samdech [Prime Minister] Hun Sen.’”

Nhiek Bun Chhay is No 1 on Funcinpec’s candidate list for Battambang, and his prospects there are strong. He has been outspoken when other ranking royalists have been cowed. He has cultivated loyalties—especially among Battambang’s many former resistance fighters he led into battle.

As Thai Bunra told it: “I replied to the man, ‘I cannot leave [Nhiek Bun Chhay] because he still has a job to do.’ Even if they offer me lots of money, I wouldn’t take it and leave him, because I hate dictatorship and communism.”

Nhiek Bun Chhay suspects his bodyguard’s encounter was related to an imminent staged coup d’etat, or the staged foiling of a staged coup—one that will be pinned on Cambodian Freedom Fighters and lead to the arrests of CPP rivals.

“[Local CPP agents] want to lure my people and use them to tell the public they served the CFF so people will think [I am] behind it. They have tried a few times but have been unsuccessful,” he said Thursday.

Nhiek Bun Chhay declined to name Thai Bunra’s solicitor, saying he did not want to invite trouble.

But Thai Bunra described the man as a one-star police general working security for Sar Kheng. “I have never known him, but he recognized me well.”

Sar Kheng on Monday declined to comment on the allegations concerning his unidentified aide. He also declined knowing of Thai Bunra. “How can I know this boy if there are thousands of people?” he asked.

Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak also dismissed the conspiracy theory. “The CFF is finished. We are waiting for [CFF leader] Chhun Yasith to be tried in the US courts. The dossier on Chhun Yasith has been submitted to the US Department of Justice. The US ambassador and the [US Federal Bureau of Investigation] are committed to bringing him to justice.

“There is no more CFF in Cambodia, only in the US. Any concern about the CFF here is just a dream people use to poison the situation, to benefit themselves politically.”

In a November e-mail, Chhun Yasith denied being pursued by the FBI. “FBI never produce any reports or decision, and court proceeding never exists, nothing happened to CFF. CFF opens its office seven days a week,” he wrote.

No one at the US Embassy could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Thai Bunra thinks the CPP officials do know him. He said he came to Hun Sen’s attention in 1997, his first brush with CPP intrigue.

Thai Bunra did not always hate communism. He started soldiering for the Khmer Rouge when he was eight, was a personal bodyguard to Pol Pot in Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district when he was 14. But the adolescent guerrilla loved the frontline. After one month, Pol Pot let him return to combat.

Thai Bunra remembers Pol Pot fondly, and ultimately his loyalty to the Khmer Rouge chief brought him grief. “He was good. Late in his life he wanted Khmer Rouge leaders to adopt democratic ideas. He wanted to reconcile with others, but Ta Mok remained a hardliner,” Thai Bunra said.

Thai Bunra said that as the rift between Pol Pot and Ta Mok widened, Ta Mok had pegged him as a Pol Pot loyalist, and consequently his conditions were grim. “For one year, from mid-’96 to mid-’97, I had nothing to eat because Ta Mok stopped supplying us. I knew Ta Mok was starving me to death. I decided to leave the Khmer Rouge and went to Thailand.”

He was not in Thailand long before Thai soldiers sent him back to Cambodia to join General Nhiek Bun Chhay, whose army backed then-first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranarridh. He said Nhiek Bun Chhay quickly became like a godfather to him.

Shortly thereafter, then-second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s forces took control of the capital in the factional fighting in July 1997. Hun Sen declared himself sole ruler and accused Funcinpec of brokering an alliance with the Khmer Rouge.

Thai Bunra said he fought alongside Nhiek Bun Chhay for three days before being captured by Hun Sen’s soldiers. Pointing to a scar on his left elbow, he told of a man trying to kill him with a bayonet thrust he deflected. His attacker’s companion intervened though, saying, “Save him for the benefit of the party.” Thai Bunra said the men mistook him for Nhiek Bun Chhay’s son.

Thai Bunra said he was then locked up at Kambol Military Base outside Phnom Penh with about 50 others, under an open sky that singed their skin. “Hun Sen’s soldiers, under [the command of General] Chap Pheakkdei, interrogated me and put me in a cell where we drank and bathed with the same water. I was the youngest but was beaten the hardest.”

Thai Bunra said that during the interrogation sessions he was forced at gunpoint to read false statements incriminating Nhiek Bun Chhay, saying his adoptive guardian had brought Khmer Rouge guerrillas into Phnom Penh and imported illegal arms. He was told to learn the statement well, because if he deviated from the script at a planned televised news conference, he would be punished.

Thai Bunra said that by this point he was suffering from his torture and acquiesced, rehearsing the statement as instructed.

The CPP-produced documentary that was broadcast around the television dial last week included excerpts from the 1997 news conference featuring Thai Bunra. The program, which royalists have dismissed as a distortion of facts, blamed Funcinpec for that year’s factional fighting.

It shows Thai Bunra sitting at a long table with other Khmer Rouge defectors rounded up by the CPP. The most prominent among them, Phon Pheap, is speaking into a microphone, denouncing his former ally, Nhiek Bun Chhay, and Funcinpec.

Thai Bunra said he read his statement. Then there were rumors of a reward. When he was returned to detention, one of Hun Sen’s soldiers asked if he had received the $6,000 for his televised performance. He said he has always assumed that Phon Pheap had pocketed the payment, as the older Khmer Rouge veteran still saw himself as Thai Bunra’s superior.

Soon thereafter Thai Bunra escaped confinement after bribing guards to let him go purchase food. He spent the next month hiding and hiking around the northwest and along the Thai border, trying to find Nhiek Bun Chhay. His likeness was on “Wanted” posters, he said. Again Thai soldiers steered him to Nhiek Bun Chhay, this time at Oddar Meanchey’s O’Smach district. Thai Bunra has stayed with the retired general ever since.

As Thai Bunra neared the end of his tale, two older men—advisers to Nhiek Bun Chhay—joined him in the hotel room they were sharing. They shed their shirts to reveal expansive and intricate protective tattoos and holstered pistols.

Despite the ruling party’s conciliatory words following last week’s televised broadcast and its denials of campaign chicanery, this camp was convinced—as Nhiek Bun Chhay’s adviser Bin Phirum put it—that CPP officials “want to start a fire.”

 

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