Resistance leader Nhiek Bun Chhay relinquished his command Thursday, paving the way for as many as several thousand troops loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh to be reintegrated into the government army.
The Funcinpec general, whose fervent followers believed he used magical powers to escape Phnom Penh after the bloody street battles of July 1997, said in a statement from O’Smach in northern Cambodia that he was officially abandoning his 17-month armed struggle.
“According to the spirit of the [recent] summit meeting, all units loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh must prepare to integrate into their former positions,” his statement read.
The agreement to reintegrate resistance troops into the government army came at a summit last month chaired by King Norodom Sihanouk.
Pro-democracy activists have heralded the pact, which also included royal pardons for Nhiek Bun Chhay and four others, as offering hope for peace and stability after three decades of conflict.
“It’s time we have a united Cambodia,” Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Peace and Cooperation, said in a recent interview. “There’s still a long way to go, but I think this should be a top priority of Cambodia.”
The task of integrating forces, however, will test the new era of cooperation between Funcinpec and the CPP.
It will be the second time that formerly warring forces attempt to merge into a neutral Cambodian army. Troops that were integrated into RCAF and the police following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords widely retained their partisan loyalties. Once the first CPP-Funcinpec political coalition soured, the factionalized armed forces fought each other in the July 1997 street battles in Phnom Penh.
Nhiek Bun Chhay, who was convicted last March of colluding with the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the government, commanded particularly fierce loyalty among his troops.
The RCAF chief of general staff, General Ke Kim Yan, has said that military region officials will be responsible for the safety of any resistance soldiers who report to them.
On Thursday, Ke Kim Yan said he now is waiting for resistance commanders to provide information about the location and number of resistance troops at each camp.
“Then, a working group will be established to inspect and verify the number of troops and commanders who are former RCAF forces,” Ke Kim Yan said. “We will accept only former RCAF forces whose names are listed” in army personnel files.
Amnestied Funcinpec military strategist Serey Kosal, who returned to Phnom Penh this week for the first time since the factional fighting, said Thursday he will leave early next week for the Thai border to help the resistance soldiers under his command make the transition.
“We must prepare for all the soldiers to join with the government,” Serey Kosal said in a telephone interview. He claimed he commanded about 4,000 soldiers in two divisions in Battambang’s Samlot district.
In an interview last April in Thailand, Nhiek Bun Chhay boasted of having 8,000 resistance soldiers spread out among 12 bases along the Thai border. He threatened then to help the prince form a government in exile if it appeared the July elections could not be fair.
That threat was never carried out, but the general fired off regular anti-government missives from his border camps.
Nhiek Bun Chhay has agreed that he can’t resume his position as RCAF’s first deputy chief of staff, but what his role will be in the new coalition government is unclear.
“I will give up everything for the sake of the people’s happiness and peace, and everything else is up to decision of the new coalition government,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said in his statement.
The armed forces’ personnel chief has said that Nhiek Bun Chhay’s convictions would prevent him from resuming a post in the armed forces.
Serey Kosal said that Nhiek Bun Chhay would be traveling to the US on a “mission,” and then return to Phnom Penh in about two weeks.
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang, Saing Soenthrith and Chris Decherd)