o’smach, Banteay Meanchey province – Former resistance commander Nhiek Bun Chhay, now the Senate’s second vice president, last week dismissed speculation he has ambitions to one day resume his military career. Instead, he said, he will focus on studying law.
“Twenty-six years as a soldier is long enough,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said in one of his most extensive interviews since relinquishing command of anti-Phnom Penh forces in December 1998.
“Many new leaders are able to bring [the military] to a better future….I no longer have any power in the military fold, and I don’t want to become a soldier again.”
Political observers praised Nhiek Bun Chhay’s remarks as a sign of demilitarization and growing political stability in Cambodia.
But they drew a tepid response from the government in Phnom Penh.
On Tuesday, spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined to directly comment on Nhiek Bun Chhay’s remarks, saying only that “it is expected in the future that the military should defend the country and implement the rule of law—not engage in revolt.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay, a former Funcinpec general, escaped a siege on his Phnom Penh compound during the bloody factional fighting of July 1997 that resulted in the ouster of Hun Sen’s coalition partner Prince Norodom Ranariddh. For the next 17 months, Nhiek Bun Chhay led resistance forces at camps spread out along the Thai border in western and northern Cambodia.
In March 1998, Nhiek Bun Chhay was convicted in absentia, along with Prince Ranariddh and two other comrades, of colluding with the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the government in 1997.
After the 1998 national elections, as part of a coalition deal between the CPP and Funcinpec, he was granted an amnesty and invited back into the fold as a politician.
Last week, he was touring the area in northern Cambodia as a politician tackling land disputes and other issues. Nhiek Bun Chhay said that he is committed to his new task.
“At first, it is difficult for a military leader to grasp the law…[but] I’ve received training and have read law books every day to strengthen my knowledge.”
Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, praised the former RCAF first deputy chief of general staff for abandoning “old thinking” and enabling hundreds of “poor people” to be demobilized and reintegrated into civilian life.
“Right now, we are witnessing the process of nation-building,” Kao Kim Hourn said Monday in an interview in Phnom Penh. “And this development is an important indication of the changing reality. It’s a positive sign that more generals are engaged in a new way of thinking.”
Similarly, Colonel Dougall McMillan, defense attache at the Australian Embassy, said Tuesday: “This move is indicative of the country’s progress from a militarized society to one in which military and paramilitary leaders are seeking to enter other arenas. I would applaud Nhiek Bun Chhay for maintaining the interest of his country by pursuing a role where he can be of benefit.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay’s sentiments, however, were met with disappointment by some of his loyal supporters in northern Cambodia.
“I really need him to back all of the people who have walked along with him,” Mao Iv of Battambang province said last Friday. “We are all waiting to welcome him when he returns to his former place.”
That is not likely to happen, according to Nhiek Bun Chhay’s secretary Sok Savin, who indicated that the former resistance commander is suited to his new role: “Nhiek Bun Chhay is clever and smart in study. He has recieved good advice from his advisers, and he has paid attention to it.”
(Additional reporting by Tom Welsh)