A coup in Cambodia
Jul 10th 1997 | PHNOM PENH
THE Phnom Penh headquarters of Cambodia's royalist party, FUNCINPEC, presents a dismal sight: party signs lie buckled and broken in the road outside, the compound wall is pocked with bullet holes, debris from ransacked offices blows about in the wind and the armed occupants have stripped the air-conditioners and pulled out the window frames. A giant portrait of FUNCINPEC's leader, Cambodia's senior prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, has vanished.
It presents a fitting image of what is left of both FUNCINPEC and Cambodia's four-year flirtation with democracy after the coup d'état that the second prime minister, Hun Sen, launched on July 5th. For two days his troops and tanks turned Phnom Penh into a war zone, as they exchanged fire with weaker FUNCINPEC forces holed up mainly in a base near the airport and around the homes of two generals. When the smoke cleared, FUNCINPEC's troops were routed and dispersed, its frightened leaders left in disarray. Mr Hun Sen stood as the undisputed ringmaster.
Prince Ranariddh, who got away to Thailand the day before the shooting started, finds himself in exile trying to whistle up support from foreign governments. The United States has condemned the use of violence, and ASEAN, the regional political grouping, has suspended Cambodia's application for membership. But Mr Hun Sen is gambling that their indignation will soon wane and has launched a propaganda counter-offensive.
That the coup was not a coup, more a reshuffle, is one line put out by his Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Mr Hun Sen likes to emphasise that nobody forced Prince Ranariddh to leave and no one is stopping him from coming back—if he is ready to face the country's less than independent courts. To further polish his democratic credentials, he is working hard to persuade FUNCINPEC's members to organise new leadership elections. These will allow him to reconvene the National Assembly and set to work on passing legislation to prepare for elections next year.
But the CPP blitzkreig was not quite the chance event that Mr Hun Sen, who claims he was holidaying in Vietnam when it started, likes to imply. Tension between the two prime ministers dates back to elections in 1993 from which Prince Ranariddh emerged with the trappings of seniority, while Mr Hun Sen and his formerly communist CPP kept most of the real power.
The tensions turned dangerous when Prince Ranariddh, weakened by his own mistakes, tried to fight back. With an eye on elections in 1998, he first entered an alliance with an opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, Mr Hun Sen's most vehement critic. To make matters worse, FUNCINPEC generals tried to achieve military parity with Mr Hun Sen's forces, by bringing troops and weapons into the capital. The breaking- point seems to have come with Prince Ranariddh's recent efforts to strike a deal with elements of the Khmers Rouges.
The challenge was too much and Mr Hun Sen, a far wilier strategist than the prince, was well prepared to deal with it. A smoothly written official report on the crisis released on July 10th presents Mr Hun Sen as saving the government from a bid by the prince to destroy it with Khmer Rouge help. His ferocious response, however, has undone the years of tortuous effort, from the Paris peace accords in 1991 to the UN's $2 billion peacekeeping mission, to provide a form of publicly accountable government. After this coup, diplomats believe, Cambodia's government will account only to Mr Hun Sen.
Cambodia is paying a high price for his success. At least 32 people are known to have died in the fighting, but the final toll is probably several times higher. Unrestrained shooting in heavily populated districts of Phnom Penh sent thousands into panic-stricken flight from the city. The fighting gave way to unrestrained looting by soldiers and police, followed at a wary distance by civilians, who pillaged houses, markets, factories and, most conspicuously, Phnom Penh's airport.
The violence will not stop there. The CPP has named only four royalist leaders, including Prince Ranariddh, that it wants to put on trial. But one of the four, Ho Sok, was shot dead on July 9th when in custody in the interior ministry. There are now fears that a bloody purge of Mr Hun Sen's critics is in the offing. This threat has proved sufficient to snuff out any potential FUNCINPEC defiance within Phnom Penh. Terrified party MPs and officials are either stealing out of the country, turning themselves over to Mr Hun Sen or keeping their mouths firmly shut.
The new order still faces trouble outside the capital. FUNCINPEC's top general is understood to have escaped Phnom Penh into the countryside, and others already there are trying to collect troops in the north-west to start a new resistance movement. As they did before in the 1980s, the royalists may team up with Khmer Rouge diehards.
But Mr Hun Sen's advisers are confident such resistance can never flourish without financial and logistical support from outside that other governments seem unlikely to supply. Pacification is just a matter of time and money, they say. If they are right and all defiance dies, Cambodia may have the 46-year-old Hun Sen in charge for another 30 years.