Though long forgotten by most, Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of the July 2, 1994 coup attempt by senior CPP figures against co-Prime Ministers Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen.
The CPP’s leadership was never as united as those outside the party believed, but by July 1994 it had descended into factional conflict. Things started to unravel after the royalist Funcinpec defeated the CPP in the May 1993 Untac-administered election. Afraid that Prince Ranariddh’s Funcinpec would try to use the 69 seats in its coalition with two smaller parties to force the CPP’s 51 members of parliament into opposition, Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP organized a fake secession movement in the eastern part of the country.
Former Interior Minister Sin Song, a longtime rival of Mr. Hun Sen’s in the CPP, and Prince Norodom Chakrapong, who had split with Ranariddh and defected to the CPP in 1991, announced that seven provinces would secede if the CPP was not allowed to share power with Funcinpec. Mr. Hun Sen pretended to Untac and the international community that he was not involved and brokered a deal to end the secession, but this was a sham: according to CPP officials, the plan was hatched by Mr. Hun Sen and other CPP leaders to force their way into a post-Untac government.
Untac folded at the first sign of risk to its thousands of troops, allowing Mr. Hun Sen to succeed in forcing a shotgun marriage with Funcinpec. Mr. Hun Sen soon became second prime minister, with equal powers to those of the election winner, first prime minister Ranariddh. But this came at a cost inside the CPP, as Mr. Hun Sen sacrificed Sin Song, Prince Chakrapong, and others who formally led the secession movement.
Prince Chakrapong had no power base in the CPP. It had used him to split Funcinpec. But Sin Song was a formidable enemy for Mr. Hun Sen. The former interior minister had a strong following in the police and the notorious A-3 “combat police,” which used to fight the Khmer Rouge. Sin Song seethed at losing his seat in the National Assembly and not being appointed to a senior position in the coalition government. Left in the political wilderness, he began to plot.
Sin Song’s anger toward Mr. Hun Sen was matched by many powerful figures in the CPP who were nervous about his apparently close relationship with Prince Ranariddh, particularly after the prince declared that the co-PMs “kiss each other three times a day.” Among the angriest was Sin Sen, the longtime CPP internal security chief and operational head of the Untac-era death squads known as “A-Teams.” Like Sin Song, Sin Sen had been denied what he considered his just rewards, something he made clear to me in a 2000 interview. (Sin Song and Sin Sen, both now deceased, were not related.) Other CPP members were simply unhappy that Funcinpec officials had replaced them in the new administration, leaving them on the sidelines as they used their new positions to make corrupt business deals.
Though the coup attempt was largely an internal CPP affair, it was also aided by Thai officials and businessmen angry that they were being cut out of lucrative business deals by Prince Ranariddh and Mr. Hun Sen. These included officials from Thaksin Shinawatra’s IBC TV, whose 99-year television contract—reportedly obtained through bribes—had recently been ripped up by the co-Prime Ministers.
But the plotters were clumsy. On June 30, 1994, in the guise of a party celebrating the creation of the Cambodian Communist Party, more than 70 generals and others met at the house of a former Defense Minister Bou Thong. There they openly discussed plans for the putsch, complacent in the knowledge that neither Mr. Hun Sen nor Ranariddh had the manpower or equipment to stop a concerted push from CPP forces coming from their stronghold in Prey Veng. Many CPP officials I interviewed said that virtually the entire CPP leadership was aware of and supported the coup, including senior members of the Chea Sim-Sar Kheng faction of the party.
On July 2, a convoy of tanks and armored personnel carriers began its march from Prey Veng. But no plot with scores of participants is watertight. Mr. Hun Sen was informed and, panicked, set about breaking up the plot. However, at the time, Mr. Hun Sen had only a modest security detail, so he needed Funcinpec forces to come to his rescue. General Nhiek Bun Chhay, a man Mr. Hun Sen later tried to have killed during the 1997 coup, sent Funcinpec forces to intercept the APCs on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, possibly saving Mr. Hun Sen’s life. (The feckless Prince Ranariddh didn’t take the plot seriously, continuing with a birthday party for his daughter before finally agreeing to be moved to the Defense Ministry for his own safety.)
Early in the morning of July 3, Sin Song was arrested at his house. Next door, the CPP President Chea Sim, who was implicated, feared he too, would be arrested. Sin Song later escaped to Thailand, where senior Thai officials protected him. Sin Sen was arrested a few days later as he was boarding a plane out of the country. A number of Thai nationals were sentenced to long prison terms, though they were later released and returned to Thailand.
Why was this shambolic episode so important to Cambodia’s future? Hun Sen extracted a heavy price from Chea Sim and Interior Minister Sar Kheng. At the time the police were the most powerful security force in the country, but they were firmly under the control of Chea Sim’s faction of the party. Vulnerable to charges of complicity in the coup, both had to accept Mr. Hun Sen’s terms, which were that he would appoint the next national police chief.
This turned out to be the brutal Hok Lundy, who reported directly to Mr. Hun Sen and made a career of human rights abuses before he died in a helicopter crash in 2008. Suddenly very fearful for his safety, Mr. Hun Sen also turned his small security detail into a full-blown personal army. This “bodyguard unit” soon became the best trained and equipped unit in the country, loyal to one man instead of the state.
This was a seismic shift within the CPP, soon making Mr. Hun Sen unquestionably the most powerful man in the party and country. He became so powerful that he could undertake the July 1997 coup against Prince Ranariddh, Nhek Bun Chhay and Funcinpec over the opposition of Chea Sim, Sar Kheng, Defense Minister Tea Banh and even the head of the army, Ke Kim Yan. Instead, Mr. Hun Sen deployed his bodyguard unit, police units under the command of Hok Lundy, gendarmerie units, some willing army units, and some Khmer Rouge defectors.
Among the many ironies is that without the intervention of Funcinpec forces, Mr. Hun Sen may have been removed, or even killed (what the plotters intended to do with Prince Ranariddh and Mr. Hun Sen remains unclear). Just as ironic, the plotters were supported by Thai businessmen and officials, including the company owned by the man at the center of Thai politics today, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose IBC had just lost its monopoly over satellite television. Twenty years later, Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Thaksin are political allies after yet another coup, although this time (as in 2006) Thaksin was the target.
Brad Adams is Asia director at Human Rights Watch