Although many government and military officials were able to explain the reasons behind the fighting that broke out in central Phnom Penh early Friday, many of the men who were arrested for instigating the attack could not.
Meanwhile on the streets of Phnom Penh, rumors of a coup d’etat circulated. Garment workers in factories along the road to Pochentong Airport, where the fighting occurred, went home early for fear of more violence.
Some government and military officials blamed bandits and robbers for the attack, while others said it was planned by the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, an obscure group of expatriate Cambodians living in the US. Khmer Serey, another shadowy, anti-government group allegedly based in Cambodia, was also named.
Both groups are typically branded by the authorities as “bandits” rather than legitimate political opposition to the government.
“It is the activity of terrorists, this is a terrorist group, no problem, very small,” Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters in Singapore, where he was attending an Asean meeting.
Sar Kheng, who is acting prime minister, said the men who attacked the Council of Ministers, Ministry of Defense and other areas in Phnom Penh may have tried to overthrow the government.
“They wanted to do something bad to the government,” he said Friday. “They had a lot of weapons and we don’t know if they hid more weapons elsewhere. They had this plan for a long time.”
Sar Kheng said he wasn’t sure if this attack was timed to embarrass him while other leaders of the country, including Minister of the Council of Ministers Sok An, were in Singapore.
Friday’s gun battles were the worst violence in Phnom Penh since 1997, when forces loyal to the CPP and Funcinpec fought each other in the streets for control of government.
Military officials said they recently learned an attack had been planned and put soldiers and police on alert for the last two days. Some of those involved in the attack arrived in Phnom Penh a few days ago, while others arrived the evening before the fighting broke out.
“We know the place where they are staying and we only wait for activity from them,” said Chinn Chanpor, a military police general. “They are terrorists and they wanted to rob people. It’s not because of politics or to topple the government. A small number like that couldn’t overthrow the government.”
A western diplomatic official agreed Friday, saying, “Nobody’s talking politics.” He downplayed rumors that the fighting was sparked by inter-party squabbling within the government.
“Clearly this was organized by someone somewhere, but no one has said it was organized by the [Sam] Rainsy Party or Funcinpec or disaffected people in the CPP,” the official said.
One high ranking military official said the government obtained a document by the Cambodian Freedom Fighters saying attacks would occur at the Council of Ministers, Ministry of Defense and against National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
“They had a plan to attack areas in all the provinces, not just in Phnom Penh,” the official said, adding that a Funcinpec colonel was involved in instigating the attack and that he would be arrested soon.
Cheam Noeun, 28, of Kompong Cham province, said he arrived in Phnom Penh around 9 pm Thursday on invitation from a man he called the “ringleader,” who gave each person a weapon, and B-40 rockets to three people.
Cheam Noeun said there were about 20 people in his group, which had dinner and drank wine before the fighting began. He said there were about 50 men total who left the train station and began shooting.
“I just shot my weapon three times into the air,” Cheam Noeun said while sitting in a holding cell at the Municipal Military Police headquarters. He was arrested with dozens of other men early Friday morning during police sweeps of the city following the fighting.
“The ring leader wore a hat and sunglasses so I did not recognize him at all. I wonder what he wanted?”
Cheam Noeun said the ring leader did not give him money, but did buy rice wine for him and the others to drink.
Others who were arrested, most of whom came from Kompong Speu province, said they were also invited to go to Phnom Penh by a “ringleader.”
Yim Sok, of Prey Veng province, said he thought he was coming to Phnom Penh to get a job, not to be arrested for being a terrorist.
“I don’t know what that is—Cambodian Freedom Fighters,” he said.
One of the six traffic police injured in the assaults, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he spoke to one of the so-called rebels near the train station.
They had scaled a wall at the station and shot at the police before hurling two grenades. “We had no chance to defend ourselves,” the officer said.
“They took my rifle and one said, ‘I destroy [Vietnamese] enemies. We are Khmer Serey, we fire to destroy [Vietnamese].’”
Military Police Lieutenant Bous Saly speculated that the forces meant to embarrass the ruling CPP right before Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong’s planned visit to Phnom Penh Monday.
Sim Hong, a guard at the train station, theorized that the rebels may have been hoping to raid arms belonging to train security personnel, which are stored at the station.
Chea Yav, 29, said he was merely walking by the Ministry of Rural Development when he heard gun fire and was shot in both legs by police officers.
“I’m a porter working at the train station for five years,” he said. “I don’t own a gun.”
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann and Seth Meixner)