July 7, 1997 in Nation/World

Prince Raises White Flag In Cambodia But It’s Unclear If Civil War Between Rivals Averted

From Wire Reports
 

Two days of heavy gunfire ended abruptly Sunday evening with one of Cambodia’s two prime ministers, the former Communist Hun Sen, declaring victory and with a white flag rising over the residence of his royalist rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

But it is unclear whether the armed confrontation between the prime ministers has ended. Ranariddh was abroad, but officials of his party said they had not given up.

Ranariddh said he fled Cambodia for France on Friday after hearing about the impending coup.

As the booming of mortars, rockets and tank fire fell silent, Hun Sen launched into a two-hour radio address in which he called the prince a traitor who should be put on trial.

In his speech, Hun Sen said he planned to keep his position as second prime minister and defer to the royalist party to name a first prime minister.

In that way he apparently hopes to keep alive the government structure put in place by a $2 billion effort at democratization fostered by the United Nations four years ago in an effort to revive a country torn by years of bloodshed and civil war.

But at nightfall there was confusion about who is in charge in Cambodia. Hun Sen was reported to have left the country for Vietnam. His rival, the prince, was in France, and King Norodom Sihanouk, the head of state, was said to be in China for medical treatment.

Several diplomats and political analysts said the open break in the governing coalition could drive the royalist party and the Khmer Rouge together in opposition to Hun Sen.

That would in effect restore an alliance in which the two groups fought Hun Sen’s Vietnamese-backed government for a decade until a peace accord in 1991 set the stage for the current coalition government. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and were responsible for deaths that numbered nearly two million.

“I told them, ‘You’re going to build up the Khmer Rouge, that’s all,’” one diplomat said of his discussions in recent days with Hun Sen’s military advisers. “How are these people going to survive without going back to the Khmer Rouge?”

Cambodia is often touted as a U.N. “success story” after a multibillion-dollar peacekeeping operation led to elections in 1993 and an unlikely alliance of the two onetime enemies, Ranariddh and Hun Sen. But they kept separate armies and have periodically accused each other of violating the terms of the truce that forced them into the “cohabitation.”

Ranariddh’s royalist party won the elections, but was forced to allow Hun Sen to share power as an equal to avoid another bloody civil war. Since then, the co-prime ministers have been trying to build up their armies and arsenals in advance of the next elections in 1998 - and they have been relying on defectors from the brutal Khmer Rouge to supplement their armed strength.

This weekend’s fighting may have been triggered by recent reports from Ranariddh’s camp that the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, had been arrested by his own men and was being held in a jungle redoubt in Anlong Veng, in northern Cambodia. The capture of Pol Pot may have cleared the way for large numbers of Khmer Rouge guerrillas to defect and join Ranariddh’s outnumbered forces, and Hun Sen may have been trying to launch a pre-emptive strike before the prince’s army could be strengthened by the new recruits.

Khmer Rouge spokesman and de facto leader Khieu Samphan announced Sunday that he has broken with Pol Pot and now recognizes the Cambodian constitution - the first step to his full participation in politics. Hun Sen may have feared that Khieu Samphan would take with him hundreds of fresh new troops to bolster Ranariddh’s forces.

In the worst case, he said, the country could divide along geographic lines, with Hun Sen controlling the provinces east of the Mekong River and the royalists along with the Khmer Rouge controlling the west.

The diplomat said Hun Sen’s forces had underestimated the determination of the militarily weaker royalists. What had been intended as a quick putsch had swelled into two days of fighting.

Similarly, he said, Prince Ranariddh had underestimated the fears he had provoked in Hun Sen by negotiating with Khmer Rouge leaders.

“It is this kind of miscalculation that leads to civil war,” the diplomat said.

In his radio address, Hun Sen said, “Ranariddh has committed illegal acts, and a criminal court is preparing to charge him.” Hun Sen denied that his actions amounted to a coup and said the royalist party should select a new leader to replace the prince as co-prime minister.

He called Ranariddh a “bone in the throat” of Cambodia and said lower-ranking members of the prince’s party who renounced him would be welcome to retain their government posts.

But diplomats said it would not be so easy to restore a functioning democratic government. And in the long run, they said, Hun Sen’s armed action is likely to cause further conflict in this unstable nation.

“It is difficult to see what kind of government can emerge from this,” a Western diplomat said. “Clearly the two prime ministers can’t work together. We don’t know if the fighting is over. We don’t know what happens next.”

The diplomats also said the political neutralization of Ranariddh and his top aides had derailed for now any possibility of the seizure and trial of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot.

Even if only briefly, the sounds of crickets in the empty streets Sunday night came as a relif from a long and exhausting day of confusion, tension and the intermittent booming of heavy weapons.

Most Cambodians say they are tired of politics and feuds and wish only that their leaders would leave them in peace to try to improve their lives.

“I have been sad for three days,” said one man as he watched the troops in the streets. “This is not what the Cambodian people want.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: VOICES AMID CHAOS Young mother racing to find refuge Meas Vanna was among the hundreds in Phnom Penh who dodged mortars and automatic weapons fire, racing to the mud flats of the Tonle Sap River to board rickety ferries. They lined up waiting to reach an island of restaurants and nightclubs where the capital’s elite often spend the evening. Vanna had a small motorcycle, three bags of essentials and her 4-month-old baby. “A shell hit one of the homes next to mine and it caught fire,” the 32-year-old woman said. “I don’t know who is right and wrong, so I don’t know who to be angry with.”

Front-line fears A young soldier on the front line near Ranariddh’s house - wearing a strip of white cloth on his uniform that identified him as a member of Hun Sen’s forces - said he was not eager to fight. “It’s not only you civilians who are trembling,” he said. “I’m trembling too.”

This sidebar appeared with the story: VOICES AMID CHAOS Young mother racing to find refuge Meas Vanna was among the hundreds in Phnom Penh who dodged mortars and automatic weapons fire, racing to the mud flats of the Tonle Sap River to board rickety ferries. They lined up waiting to reach an island of restaurants and nightclubs where the capital’s elite often spend the evening. Vanna had a small motorcycle, three bags of essentials and her 4-month-old baby. “A shell hit one of the homes next to mine and it caught fire,” the 32-year-old woman said. “I don’t know who is right and wrong, so I don’t know who to be angry with.”

Front-line fears A young soldier on the front line near Ranariddh’s house - wearing a strip of white cloth on his uniform that identified him as a member of Hun Sen’s forces - said he was not eager to fight. “It’s not only you civilians who are trembling,” he said. “I’m trembling too.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email