​The July 1997 shootout | Phnom Penh Post

The July 1997 shootout


Publication date
27 July 2007 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Michael Vickery

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<br /> Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando flashes the peace sign at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this year. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Four months later, on July 5, shooting erupted in and around Phnom Penh and continued

for two days, at the end of which the armed units of FUNCINPEC had been routed. Several

of their officers, including General Kroch Yoeun, noted above in connection with

the 1994 coup attempt, had been killed, and another, also involved in the 1994 affair,

Nhiek Bun Chhay, commanding the FUNCINPEC forces, escaped and fled to the northwest

border area. Prince Ranariddh, who had fled to Paris on July 4, was replaced as First

Prime Minister by Mr. Ung Huot, who had returned to Cambodia for the UNTAC election

after many years, including the Khmer Rouge period, in Australia.

This event, right up to the present, has been, with few exceptions, treated by the

press, and even by card-carrying scholars, as a 'bloody coup by strongman Hun Sen'

to oust Prince Ranariddh and destroy the FUNCINPEC party. In 1993 it was said that

journalists swarmed into town hoping to see blood, and left disappointed. Now they

saw some blood, and they certainly knew what to do with it -grease their own personal

Vietnam syndromes by kicking a Cambodian leadership which, like Vietnam, had refused

to kowtow.

'Strong Man' Hun Sen, they said, moved to wipe out his opposition because he feared

the results of next year's (1998) election, required by the constitution. UNTAC's

2 billion was wasted, because it didn't buy compliance with what the West wanted

in Cambodia. Those FUNCINPEC figures who chose Hun Sen over Ranariddh were 'quislings',

although when they returned to Cambodia after 1991 they were hailed as the best elements

of FUNCINPEC, as they no doubt were. Ung Huot, for example, had been highly praised

for trying to impose greater discipline and efficiency in the Ministry of Education

after formation of the Royal government in October 1993.

The CPP position after the events was that it had been an attempted coup by FUNCINPEC,

with support from KR troops, to overthrow the CPP and Hun Sen, and a White Paper

was published to this effect. This was rejected out of hand by the journos and by

most of the Cambodia specialist crowd; but I discovered in visits to Phnom Penh later

that the White Paper arguments were widely accepted among serious diplomats.

Perhaps the only journalist who attempted at the time to look at evidence from both

sides was Barry Wain, who wrote, "in circumstances that remain disputed, Mr.

Hun Sen's military forces... defeated Prince Ranariddh's troops in Phnom Penh".

As noted at the beginning of this survey, other journalists who lacked Wain's authority

and independence surreptitiously held similar views, although in their published

work they felt obliged to perform a hatchet job on a well-known researcher known

for sympathy toward Hun Sen and the CPP180. The pro-CPP interpretation found its

most prominent international supporter in Tony Kevin, Australian ambassador to Cambodia,

who was in Phnom Penh at the time181.

Revelations and disinformation

For 'human rights lawyer' Brad Adams, however, in his disinformation ploy to the

U.S. Senate, the mini-civil war of July 1997 was nothing but a putsch by Hun Sen,

totally ignoring the evidence that the other side was equally prepared and that they

may well have started the action. It is true, as Adams said, that "the home

of... Ranariddh was surrounded and attacked", but then it was serving as a command

post for the anti-government forces, as is clearly seen in a film which they shot

of themselves, later found by the government (Ranariddh himself had bugged out on

July 4th and was on his way to France). There they appear relaxed and confident of

their coming victory. Ly Touch, [Editor: Ly Touch defected to the CPP in March 2007]

now a FUNCINPEC member of parliament, was on the phone, to foreign journalists, saying

that Hun Sen had been killed by his bodyguards, evidently in preparation for an extra-judicial

execution which they were planning.

This is one of the most stunning pieces of evidence for the interpretation of the

events as a FUNCINPEC coup manque, and shows that it was not only, to quote Adams

again, "senior FUNCINPEC military officials who were targeted for execution".

FUNCINPEC evidently had its own list of targets too, if they had won182.

Further support for the CPP interpretation came with the discovery of Khmer Rouge

documents on their negotiations with Ranariddh and his colleagues. Phnom Penh Post

published summaries of their important details in May 1998, quoting "An independent

expert in Phnom Penh [who] describe[s] the papers as 'politically explosive' and

possibly the 'most important' to have been found in Cambodia in recent times. Senior

CPP sources said the books were 'priceless' and would change not only Cambodians'

views of Hun Sen's actions in July last year-but that of the world,"

Not surprisingly, I suppose, given that introduction, they were ignored by most of

the important press organs and wire services. At the time I was in the United States

and received the Phnom Penh Post article immediately by fax, after which I remained

another week in the U.S., reading the New York Times every day, but found nothing

there about this important revelationl83.

Finally Phnom Penh Post made up for its gaffe in highlighting those papers by giving

generous space to the spin doctors from UNTAC days, Stephen Heder and David Ashley,

to interpret the importance of the 'KR papers' as merely demonstrating the lack of

reality in the KR position, imagining that they could still play a role in Cambodian


Escalation ignored

Totally ignored in the standard, anti-CPP, treatment was the build-up to the events

of July 5-6. Although journalists cannot always be historians and sociologists, they

must pay some attention or their simple-minded recording of the 'facts' of the moment

(always partial because choices must be made, and therefore inevitably partisan)

leads them into gross misinterpretations, not to say disinformation.

No doubt for journalists the 1980s are such ancient history that they cannot be accused

of bias for forgetting them. All Cambodian political figures, however, know, and

do not forget, that the entire so-cal1ed peace process evolution was intended to

get rid of the CPP, even at the risk of giving the KR a place in the government.

The Paris Agreement and the 1993 election only came about because the PRK/SOC managed

to defeat cruder schemes. And in spite of 2 billion dollars and a whole gaggle of

experts, the conduct of balloting and counting was sloppy enough to give the CPP

reason to claim fraud.

It is, however, disinformation just to say that Ranariddh won but Hun Sen refused

to move out. As described above, the coalition was mandated by Paris and UNTAC rules

concerning the new constitution; and the position retained by the CPP was in accord

with its votes, 38% against 45%. This is the minimum background.

It was disinformation not to at least acknowledge in passing that in the weeks preceding

the July 1997 affair Ranariddh boasted that he would use new KR allies to further

his own policies, especially, and most dangerously, against Vietnam185. It was disinformation

not to note that ever since 1993 the royalists had been plotting to undermine Hun

Sen as much as he, no doubt, had been plotting to stay ahead of them. The post-election

secession was under Ranariddh's brother Chakrapong, just dumped by the CPP, and directly

instigated by an important non-CPP higher-level personality. Hun Sen outplayed them

and got credit for putting down the secession. All through 1994 various royalist

schemes were hatched to undermine the CPP by bringing the KR into the government

via a back door; and in July of that year a royalist coup was barely nipped in the

bud. Even Steve Heder, no friend of the CPP, expressed dismay that FUNCINPEC "general

Nhiek Bun Chhay plays footsie or worse with the likes of Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and

Nuon Chea".186

The royalists, moreover, seem to have got what they asked for. As argued in the CPP

White Paper edited by a U.S. lawyer, and as supported by another American lawyer-journalist,

Mike Fowler, who said, in his presentation of the case, that the royalists had been

trying to provoke such an incident, apparently overconfident of success, and Hun

Sen had a good legal case against them, if only he had resorted to the courts rather

than to violence. 187I wonder what courts he could have used. The Phnom Penh foreign

community and the international press have condemned the Cambodian courts as nothing

but rubber stamps for the government, they would have denounced any verdict in Hun

Sen's favor as dishonest; and probably no international court would have taken the


Finally, in the absence of inside information, a foreign observer must at least acknowledge

that the July 1997 action was an explosion resulting from simmering hostility between

the two sides which had been obvious for months.

Parts of this section were originally published as "A non-standard view of the

coup", Phnom Penh Post (PPP) 6/17, 29 Aug-11 Sept, 1997, p. 11; and in The Nation

(Bangkok), 25 September 1997, p. A5 with the title "The real story of Cambodia

cries out to be told". 179 Journo comment is too prevalent to require citation.

For pseudo-scholarly work see Brown and Zasloff, pp. 239-240.

180. See above, p. 12; and Matthew Grainger, "EU media guru says Ranariddh guilty,"

a title in itself redolent of emotional prejudice, PPP 7/2, 30 January-13 February

1998, p. 2.

181. Wain in Asian Wall Street Journal, 20-21, February 1998, p. 10, entitled "Salvaging

Elections in Cambodia". For a serious discussion of the position that the 'coup'

may have started as an attempted putsch by Ranariddh's forces, see Tony Kevin, "U.S.

Errs in Cambodia Policy", FEER 21 May 1998, p. 37; "Cambodia Prepares for

National Elections", The Asia-Pacific Magazine No. 9110, 1998; and "Support

Cambodian Elections", Christian Science Monitor Weekly 24-30 July, 1998, p.


182. I have discovered that this view is widespread among diplomats in Phnom Penh,

although they refuse to make it public, and the evidence is well-known to the journalistic

herd who, nevertheless, continue to bray on about 'strongman Hun Sen's bloody coup

to oust Prince Ranariddh', One detail which has been difficult to pin down is the

statement in the government's first White Paper that at 5 A.M. on July 5, Voice of

America broadcast a taped message from Ranariddh that a coup against him was underway

in Phnom Penh. At that time Ranariddh was on a plane to France, and nothing had yet

happened in Phnom Penh. If the story was true it meant that FUNCINPEC was preparing

a cover story for the putsch they were planning, and that some Americans were in

on It. In December 2001 the ambassador of a respected western country which has no

strategic, economic, or vengeance interests in Cambodia told me he was convinced

that the story was true, because it had been confirmed for him by a person close

to Ranariddh, one of the people seen clearly in the video which the FUNCINPEC leaders

made of themselves early in the fighting when they believed they would win.

183. PPP 7/10, May 22-June 4, 1998; see also a description of their discovery by

Bou Saroeun and Peter Sainsbury, in Bou Saroeun, "The KR Papers", PPP 11/15,

July 19-August 1, 2002.

184. Stephen Heder, "US must hold Hun Sen to higher standards than EU "

PPP, 7/12, June 19-July 2, 1998; David Ashley, PPP, Issue 7/13, July 3-16,1998, pp.


185. PPP, 5/10, 20 September-3 October 1996, "Ranariddh dismisses rumored CPP

scheme", and interview with Matthew Grainger, "Ranariddh: 'KR will be very

tough"', The same theme was implicit in the formation of the 'National Union

Front' of FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy's 'Khmer Nation Party', with participation in

the celebration by 20 Khmer Rouge delegates from Ieng Sary's 'Democratic NationaI

Union Movement', See Ker Munthit, "Smiles all round as one-time foes join hands

in NUF", PPP 6/5, March 7-20, 1997, p, 4

186. Stephen Heder, "Khmer Rouge again slipping away from punishment",

a second installment of Heder's edited testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations

Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, PPP 7/13, July 3-16, 1998.

187. Mike Fowler, in PPP 12-24 July 1997, p. 11.

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