The July 5-6 1997 "Events": When is a coup not a coup?

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n.d. July 5-6?! Phnom Penh: Royal Government of Cambodia.

Moreau, Ron

1997 Asia’s New Boss, Newsweek. July 21: 10-15

Roberts, David

From Coalition to Confrontation, 1993-1997 IN Political Transition in Cambodia. New York: St. Martins Press, pp. 121-149.

Under the auspices of the United Nations Transition Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), elections were held in 1993 with the participation of twenty political parties. The two major parties that won the most votes in this election are the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and FUNCINPEC. Although FUNCINPEC received more votes than CPP, CPP was able to negotiate a political arrangement in its favor. The outcome was a coalition government headed by co-prime ministers Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, each of whom supposedly controlled equal shares of provincial and ministerial portfolios. Despite the arrangement’s apparent balance, the CPP’s existing administrative, security and military apparatuses enabled it to maintain power throughout the country.

After a short honeymoon period, the two Prime ministers were engaged in an intense power struggle. The tension finally exploded in two days of fierce fighting in Phnom Penh on July 5 and 6, 1997 between forces loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen emerged triumphant as the sole leader of Cambodia. Although most observers agreed that the fighting was a serious setback to the United Nations democratic experiment in Cambodia, they disagreed on the details of what had happened and who had initiated the conflict. This disagreement is noticeable both within academic circles and among policy makers.

Western journalists, without hesitation, labeled the conflict as a bloody coup d’etat orchestrated by Hun Sen with a clear objective of achieving sole control of the country (See for example, Far Eastern Economic Review, July 17, 1997, The New Yorker August 10, 1998, Newsweek July 21, 1997). For these journalists, Hun Sen would do whatever it took to destroy his political opponents; the July 5-6 coup d’etat was just another case in point.

Policy makers in Western countries and Western academics are actually divided over the issue of how to label the conflict. The majority of them called the events a coup d’etat while a small number labeled it simply as an armed conflict between FUNCINPEC and CPP.

One political scientist, Sorpong Peou, considered the July 5-6 events a coup based upon the following definition: a coup is "the sudden and violent overthrow of a government, almost invariably by the military or with the help of the military . . . without necessarily altering the social context in which they rule" (Peou 2000: 302, citing Robertson Dictionary of Politics). Moreover, "the organizers of a coup d’etat usually carry it out by capturing or killing top political and military leaders, by seizing control of key government building and public utilities, by using the mass media of communication to calm the masses and gain their acceptance of the new regimes" (Peou 2000: 302). United Nation Secretary General also called the event a coup because " a change in the composition of the government had been initiated and carried out by armed forces" (Peou 2000: 303).

The government claimed that no coup had occurred since FUNCINPEC members still remained in the government, and a vote was held to replace Prince Ranariddh with a new FUNCINPEC Prime minister. The government forces had not fought with FUNCINPEC, they claimed, but with "anarchist forces," including Khmer Rouge troops, that had attacked the city. The replacement of Prince Ranariddh with Ung Huot as the First Prime Minister was unconstitutional Peou argued, as it was done in violation not only of FUNCINPEC party’s internal rules and constitution, but the Cambodian Constitution (2000: 303).

Those who rejected the phrase coup d’etat argue that the advocates of the phrase were biased against Hun Sen and the CPP. Tony Kevin, former Australian Ambassador to Cambodia, called the events "a trial of strength," implying that if Hun Sen had not taken action and won, Ranariddh would have toppled Hun Sen by force (cited in Curtis 1998: 53). Moreover, the replacement of Prince Ranariddh with Ung Huot, he argues, was carried out according to democratic, parliamentary procedures.

Those who deny that the events constituted a coup base their arguments primarily on a Government White Paper issued soon after the fighting in Phnom Penh was over. The White Paper stated that "the government" took military action against Prince Ranariddh and his military forces in order to prevent the return of the Khmer Rouge to power. The paper accuses Prince Ranariddh of engaging in collaboration with the Khmer Rouge to oppose Hun Sen. Further, Ranariddh was also allegedly engaged in illegal arms smuggling, secretly attempting to move 3 tons of ammunition to Phnom Penh.

The opponents of the "coup" interpretation are themselves biased for taking the White Paper at face value. Much of the information the paper provides is correct, including Prince Ranariddh’s alleged negotiations with the Khmer Rouge; but it deliberately leaves out much more detail that implicates the CPP in some of the "crimes" for which FUNCINPEC stood accused. Further, the details of troop movements and fighting on July 5-6 are factually inaccurate in the CPP presentation of events.

A number of issues are debated: what happened on July 5-6, details of troop movements prior to the events, whether or not there were Khmer Rouge forces among troops in the city, and the details of prior negotiations with the Khmer Rouge. I will discuss each of these issues, as well as some of the consequences of the "events." This includes my own personal story of events over the days in question. On the morning of July 5th, I was traveling outside Phnom Penh to the south on the airport road to attend a religious ceremony near the city. I returned to the city around noon, traveling on the same road initially, but having to turn back because of fighting near the airport. I then backtracked and entered the city through another route. As the fighting intensified, I hid with a friend in a house near the FUNCINPEC office next to the French embassy. We watched Khmer escaping the fighting by fleeing across the bridge out of the city. We heard the fighting, including shelling of the FUNCINPEC compound on the second day.

First, the CPP version of events on the 5th is clearly inaccurate. The government report on the events, July 5-6?!, states that, "the government did not have any plan to disarm either Taing Kasang military base or Pochentong International airport military base, nor send troops to surround them" (1997:55). Rather, the report alleges that FUNCINPEC general Nhek Bun Chhay ordered troops to occupy the military side of the airport and to move out of Taing Kasang base near the airport into the city around noon on the 5th. FUNCINPEC forces (called "anarchist forces" in the CPP press, not FUNCINPEC) are then said to have attacked the city "randomly shelling the city without any regard for human life" (1997:55). At three in the afternoon, government military forces arrived at the home of FUNCINPEC military commander Chao Sambath, according to the CPP account. The plan was just to remove "illegal weapons" from the house, but government troops reportedly came under fire from the house and then "armed clashes erupted" in the western parts of the city (1997:54). In an interview with Voice of America (VOA), Hun Sen is quoted as saying that fighting did not erupt until 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon of the fifth. At that time, "people at the residence of Chao Sambath began to move out at take up positions in various parts of the city. At security bases, the bases where bodyguards of the Prince were stationed, they used tanks with 100-millimeter guns to fire at Tuol Kork causing deaths among the population. At that time, we had still taken no action" (VOA July 21, 1997). The government forces were "taken by surprise" by the offensive on the city, and it was only during the night of the 6th that they were able to move in forces from "other military regions" to protect Phnom Penh (July 5-6?! 1997:55). So according to this account, CPP forces responded to an unprovoked attack on the city by anarchical forces around noon. They were completely unprepared for such an assault and it took them until the next day to move troops into position to respond to the attack.

Journalists’ accounts directly contradict this description of events. CPP forces were on the move before dawn on the 5th, and by first light had surrounded the airport and the military base at Taing Kasang. Newsweek reports that they "overran" the FUNCINPEC base at Ang Snoul just after dawn. According to these accounts, the troops surrounding Taing Kasang were demanding that the FUNCINPEC forces within disarm; instead, they chose to fight.

I can personally verify part of these accounts. When I traveled down the airport road at about 8:00 a.m. there were CPP troops all along the roadway, including surrounding the airport. I remember thinking that perhaps someone important was flying into the airport, that they would have such a large military force there. These forces included armored personnel carriers and heavy caliber machine guns. When I was out at the village, the local people told me not to stay because there were government troops in all the surrounding villages, encircling the city. When I tried to return to the city around noon, fighting blocked the road and the sound of heavy fighting could be heard coming from the direction of Taing Kasang. I saw several carloads of journalists advancing into the area where the fighting was occurring. We backtracked and came into the city by another route. We found that at this other entrance to the city at Stoeng Mean Chay there were already CPP military units in position, heavily armed and with armored personnel carriers and a tank. I stopped to buy canned goods and went to the house where I was staying. We drove directly passed the train station, where, according to Hun Sen’s account "anarchist forces" had already taken the train station (VOA July 21 1997). The streets were quiet in that area, though one could hear the sound of shelling from the area to the west (click on map below to see bigger version).

According to eye witnesses, in the area of the city near Nhek Bun Chhay’s house, FUNCINPEC soldiers ran door-to-door on the afternoon of the 5th telling the civilians to flee because the area was about to be shelled by CPP forces. The residents fled with only the clothes on their backs, escaping just before fighting erupted in that area.

July97_5.jpg (22740 bytes)At some point on the night of the 5th or the morning of the 6th, the FUNCINPEC forces did break out of Taing Kasang because there was fierce fighting along the road from the airport towards the city. The airport was heavily damaged in this fighting, gas stations were set ablaze and several buildings were damaged by heavy arms fire. Civilians from the western parts of the city, and in the areas around Nhek Bun Chhay’s house, Chao Sambath’s house, the FUNCINPEC party office near the French embassy and Prince Ranariddh’s house fled the fighting. Streams of people fled eastward, many crossing the bridges to the east side of the Bassac and Mekong rivers.


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The fighting was over by the afternoon of the 6th. The FUNCINPEC forces had been no match for the obviously superior CPP forces. In fact CPP forces had been moved in from the provinces in the weeks before the fighting, according to eyewitness accounts. I have friends who saw these troop movements down from Kompong Cham and up from the southeast in the two weeks prior to the fighting. Some FUNCINPEC forces were able to slip away out of Taing Kasang on the night of the 6th to the border areas in the Northeast of Cambodia. The fighting stopped on the afternoon of the 6th in the city as CPP forces took the FUNCINPEC office near the French embassy (after shelling it earlier that day), and Prince Ranariddh’s residence. At 7:00 p.m. Hun Sen went on television to announce the "suppressing of the anarchist forces" (July 5-6?! 1997: 59).


July97_7.jpg (29193 bytes)A part of the story that is largely untold was still underway, and would continue for the next three days -- the story of the looting by CPP forces. The government account says of the looting only, "…when the clash ended, other anarchistic activities spruced up such as looting of civilian belongings, motorbikes, and vehicles from various warehouses, garment factories and individual residences. Immediately, the Headquarter issued an order to withdraw all armed forces from the city and instructed various military commanders to maintain discipline within their units" (July 5-6?! 1997:61).



The looting actually began during the fighting. Journalists took pictures of CPP forces focused not on fighting, but on theft. One now famous set of photographs by a particularly brave journalist who was obviously in the thick of things was sold for $300 a set in the days following the "events." The government report reprints some of the photos from this set (July 5-6?! 1997: 54,55,57,58), but does not include any of the pictures of looting (shown below). An ethnic Khmer Canadian citizen was shot dead taking pictures of the looting on the 6th.



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A Hospital that was hit by a stray shell.

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A garment factory that was looted

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The airport's main lobby stripped clean

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Taking a motorbike home


The fact that the looting was primarily done by CPP forces is evidenced by the fact that it continued in the western parts of the city for three days after the FUNCINPEC forces had supposedly been defeated. Motorcycle warehouses were emptied of their stock. The Mitsubishi and Toyota dealerships were hit. Garment factories were emptied. The Pochentong International airport itself was stripped of everything, including plastic seats, light fixtures, toilets, even the boarding ramp was driven away. Local residents stood at military barricades and watched as their businesses and homes were systematically looted. Officers were allowed in first to take things like cars and motorbikes. Midlevel officers went in next to take TVs, radios and other valuables. Finally, the "kaun tahean" the low ranking soldiers were let in to take kitchen pots, clothes and anything else that remained. In the end it was CPP forces that "attacked" and ransacked these parts of the city. Residents stood helplessly at the barricades and watched their possessions go passed. The government report says that "an investigative committee was set up for the purpose of assessing and evaluating proper compensation," but such compensation was never discussed again (July 5-6?! 1997:61).

It is not clear how many soldiers and civilians were killed in the fighting. Investigations by the UN Centre for Human Rights (UNCHR) confirmed the deaths of some 41 FUNCINPEC military officials with another sixty missing (read the detailed report from UNCHRl). These were not people who died in the fighting, but individuals executed after the fighting stopped on the 6th (UNCHR August 1997). The dead included many of the top leadership of the old FUNCINPEC military forces that had fought in the resistance army along the border in the 1980s.

In sum, if FUNCINPEC were moving forces into the city before July 5th, it is also clear that CPP was moving large numbers of troops and weapons into the city as well. The CPP story, of being caught out unprepared by an attack on Phnom Penh, is untenable. At the end of July, UNCHR officials were allowed to interview some 600 people who were arrested during the fighting as "anarchist" forces. The CPP military officials said that among them there were a "small number" of Khmer Rouge, but UNCHR was unable to confirm that any of the detainees were Khmer Rouge (UNCHR August 1997).

As to the allegations that Prince Ranariddh was engaged in secret negotiations with the Khmer Rouge, this was later confirmed by documents found when government forces captured Anlong Veng (see Phnom Penh Post 7(13), July 3-16 July 1998: 9). The CPP also had been engaged in negotiation with the KR forces, and actually won over the support from one the Khmer Rouge factions at Pailin under Ieng Sary in 1996. David Roberts argues that Hun Sen’s negotiations with the Khmer Rouge were designed to undermine the movement by integrating it into the Royal Government Armed Forces; while to the contrary, Prince Ranariddh’s covert negotiations with the Khmer Rouge at Anlong Veng were to strengthen his faction of the armed forces in order to overthrow Hun Sen (1998:141-142). But both CPP and FUNCINPEC military were trying to woo Khmer Rouge commanders to personally join their followings, to offset the strength of the other side. Philip Gourevitch wrote in the New Yorker, "What has distinguished Hun Sen’s deal-making with the Khmer Rouge from Ranariddh’s before last July’s coup is that Hun Sen has operated from a position of strength" (August 10, 1998:52). In fact, individual members of the Khmer Rouge forces who had "defected" to the government fought on Hun Sen’s side during the events, including the notorious Ke Pauk, a former zone commander during DK.

The fighting produced both negative as well as positive developments for Cambodia. There are a number of negative consequences. First, the coup was a set back to democratic development in Cambodia. It indicated that despite the election and continued international support for Cambodia, Cambodian elites were not able to settle their disputes by peaceful, democratic means. Second, there were severe human rights violations during and soon after the coup. United Nations human rights investigators implicated Hun Sen forces in the execution and disappearances of around one hundred FUNCINPEC party activists and military officials. A third negative consequence was the looting spree in areas of the city that were near the fighting.

Hundred of miles away at the north and northwestern part of Cambodia, troops loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh set up a resistance base against the Hun Sen government. The fighting there generated yet again another wave of refugees as people fled for safety.

Internationally, Cambodia also experienced a set back. The coup was criticized widely as "a bloody seizure of power" by Hun Sen. Major powers such as the United States and Western Europe did not support Hun Sen’s political move. Consequently, bilateral aid programs were temporarily suspended. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank announced the suspension of aid and the United Nations voted leave the Cambodian seat at the United Nations vacant. However, criticism was not unanimous. Western diplomats from Australia, Canada, France and even the United States and ASEAN exercised caution in judging the event and refrained themselves from using the word "coup." The United States avoided the word coup based on intelligent reports that Ranariddh was also engaged in a power grab and that both sides were guilty of courting the Khmer Rouge. A senior official of the Clinton administration said, "There are no heroes in Cambodia. Nobody’s black or white; they’re all shade of gray" (Newsweek July 21, 1997:15). The Association of Southeast Asian Nations called the fighting "unfortunate circumstances which resulted from the use of force." The association postponed the admission of Cambodia into the association that had been scheduled for that month. The United Nations took a harder stance and denounced "the coup d’etat." In the wake of the July events, the international community led by the United States took a hard stance against Hun Sen because to do otherwise meant to endorse the violent ouster of a democratically elected First Prime Minister. With active support from the United States, the United Nations Credential Committee voted to leave the Cambodian seat at the United Nations General Assembly vacant. In the meantime, donor countries such as the United States and Germany and multilateral institutions, noticeably the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, temporarily suspended aid programs to Cambodia. This action greatly affected Cambodia given its heavy dependence on international assistance. The widely publicized event also effected the inflow of tourism and foreign investment.

But the events also ended the period of political instability and armed confrontation between Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Hun Sen’s victory, though it was a set back for democratic development, has had positive effects on the security of Cambodia. In the two years leading to the July events, there was a widespread military buildup of forces loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Sihanouk in and around Phnom Penh. After the event, such a widespread military presence no longer existed. As soldiers are largely contained in their barracks, there are no longer checkpoints along the roads controlled by soldiers who extorted money from travelers.

The divisions within the Khmer Rouge led to the further splintering and eventual collapse of the movement. Pol Pot died in 1998 and the remaining elements of the old leadership all "defected" to the government, with the exception of Ta Mok, the former commander of the Southwest zone during DK. (He and the former director of S-21 are the only former DK leaders who are under arrest to crimes committed between 1975 and 1979). With the end of the Khmer Rouge and the end of squabbles between CPP and FUNCINPEC there is peace throughout Cambodia for the first time since the late 1960s.

Under pressure from the international community, Hun Sen agreed to hold elections in 1998 as scheduled. Ranariddh stood trial for his "crimes," was pardoned and allowed to return to stand in the election. The elections were seen as a way to "launder" Cambodia’s international image in the wake of the "events." There was strong, if quiet, diplomatic support for Hun Sen, because a victory by the CPP was widely seen as the only way to maintain stability. One French diplomat told Gourevitch, "Let’s be realistic. We get Hun Sen elected, not free and fair like in our countries, but O.K. good enough. Then we can have legitimacy, diplomacy, investment, order, and these poor people can get on with their lives without political trouble" (1998:48).

In 1998, the CPP won the election, but without the majority needed to form a government alone. They again formed a coalition government with FUNCINPEC. But this time CPP retained control of crucial ministries, including: finance, defense, interior, and information. FUNCINPEC leaders head education, health, culture, and women’s and veteran’s affairs. The new balance of power is clear, Hun Sen is the undisputed leader of Cambodia.

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