bangkok – There were problems from the beginning, from the planning stages of the Nov 24 attack in Phnom Penh down to the firing of the first shot, said Chhun Yasith, leader of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters.
If the attack had gone as planned, he said, many more lives would have been lost because the fighting would have been like an all-out war as opposed the few rambling skirmishes that erupted near the Ministry of Defense.
And if the assault had been successful, Phnom Penh would have been taken over by CFF troops and Prime Minister Hun Sen would have been forced out of office, Chhun Yasith said.
“We were prepared to transform Cambodia into a country like the US,” he said. “We had a constitution that would’ve turned Cambodia into a republic.”
Chhun Yasith said planning for the attack began in June, when he moved to Thailand to work personally with his commanders and troops.
For two years, he said, he and other CFF leaders had been recruiting members across Cambodia, including soldiers and other officials already working for the government.
CPP colonels, former bodyguards for Hun Sen, Funcinpec generals, members of the Sam Rainsy Party and monks are among the ranks of the rebel force, Chhun Yasith said.
In Phnom Penh alone, Chhun Yasith said, there are 30,000 members who have CFF identification cards as proof of the once obscure anti-government group’s strength, though the government has downplayed the organization’s real presence in Cambodia.
“We used psychology as part of our attack,” he said. “We used Hun Sen people against Hun Sen. I told them they were there in the government, so they should stand up for themselves and help liberate the country.”
From June through October, CFF members coordinated to link provincial leaders to rank-and-file officers, while special agents made observations to see what military resources the government had, Chhun Yasith said.
He said he went back and forth to places along the Cambodian-Thai border, such as O’Smach, Poipet and Samlot, to meet with his troops and to obtain updates on the planning.
Instead of following traditional guerrilla warfare by setting up military bases in the provinces and attacking from the outside first before moving to Phnom Penh, Chhun Yasith said he decided to begin the attack with an assault on the capital.
“If Phnom Penh collapsed, then the people in the provinces would not have to spend much energy to take over,” he said. “The rest would take care of itself.”
A communications system was set up in Cambodia and in Thailand for the night of the planned assault, he said.
But a few weeks before the attack, a woman who was storing 25 ICOM radios in Banteay Meanchey province ran into trouble with the authorities in an unrelated case and when police arrived at the woman’s home, they found the radios. Sok Sareth, Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief, said 22 ICOMs were recovered at the house.
Transmissions on the special radios, bought in the US, could not be monitored by the Cambodian government, Chhun Yasith said. CFF members bought more radios in Cambodia, but the new radios were less sophisticated and allowed the government to eavesdrop on CFF conversations, he said.
The intelligence reports provided some good news, Chhun Yasith said. With Cambodia now at peace, the military was not up to the standards it had been during the years of fighting. Many soldiers didn’t show up to work and instead tended their farms. “They had become careless,” he said.
Hun Sen’s home in Kandal province’s Takhmau district was to be attacked by more than 700 troops, while the prime minister’s home in Phnom Penh was to be hit by more than 200 CFF soldiers, Chhun Yasith said. Also, about 100 CFF soldiers were planning to stage an assault on the home of National Police Director Hok Lundy, while more than 160 were responsible for taking over Pochentong Airport.
By October, the “pot of the cooking rice smelled ready,” Chhun Yasith said.
The original plan was to attack in mid-November during the Water Festival, but there were too many people from the provinces in town and that date was scratched. CFF leaders then decided on Nov 24, just before the planned visit of Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong. But they had miscalculated because they thought Hun Sen would still be in town during the attack, instead of in Singapore for an Asean meeting.
The attack was supposed to occur at 4 am, timed so that if something went wrong, daylight would break soon and the rebels could quickly change into civilian clothes and hide in the villages, Chhun Yasith says. The CFF was also hoping that once the fighting began, mototaxi drivers, monks and others would join in the attack with them.
Between midnight and 4 am, troops were to get into place and make sure everything was working properly.
But a few CFF commanders, including Richard Kiri Kim, the only Cambodian-American in custody for the incident, were nervous and excited and ended up firing the first shots just after midnight. None of the other troops stationed at the more than 200 targets were ready to attack, Chhun Yasith says.
Even before the first shots were fired, CFF leaders were having problems with Kiri Kim. He had handed out at least 10 copies of the CFF’s complete attack plans, some of which landed in government hands. There were only supposed to be two copies of the complete plan—one for Kiri Kim and one for Chhun Yasith.
Just before the fighting began, Kiri Kim kept naming roads where troops were stationed by their real names, instead of by their code names.
“One of the other commanders asked Kiri on the radio, ‘Why are you using the real names of the roads? Are you a real commander? Do you know how to handle your troops?’” says Chhun Yasith, who says he was 12 km into Cambodia in Pursat province during the fighting. “I don’t know why Kiri did that. He was more stupid than the enemy.”
When CFF commanders saw that only a few targets had been attacked after the first shots were fired, they ordered all their troops to withdraw, leaving several dozen stranded in a gun battle with security forces.
After the attack was finished Kiri Kim fell asleep for a few hours in one of the CFF command stations in Phnom Penh, while other CFF commanders returned to their homes.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” Chhun Yasith says. “They should’ve hid in the village instead of going back to their home and acting as if nothing had happened.”
The following day, Kiri Kim was arrested at Siem Reap airport and the government began what human rights groups call a “witch hunt” for enemies.
Though Chhun Yasith acknowledges he is disappointed by the failure of the attack, he vows he will stage another assault once CFF regroups.
“All that planning, and then to fail in one day,” he says , shaking his head. “But we will strike again. Hun Sen still has reason to be afraid.”