The United States on Tuesday condemned Cambodian leader Hun Sen for seizing power by force last weekend and urged the country’s political factions to resolve their differences peacefully.
Meanwhile, as Hun Sen’s troops moved to consolidate control, reports from the beleaguered capital sketched scenes of widespread arrests and at least one execution.
The Associated Press, Reuters and independent human rights groups all reported that Ho Sok, a senior aide loyal to Hun Sen’s rival, Prince Ranariddh, was arrested late Monday and later executed. Reuters quoted a Hun Sen official as saying that Ho Sok was “shot down by the people who were angry with him.”
The independent group Human Rights Watch also said it had received information that “a wave of arrests” was under way by forces loyal to Hun Sen in various parts of the country. A statement issued by the group’s headquarters in New York said it had information indicating that about 20 Ranariddh loyalists had been arrested in the city of Prey Veng, west of the capital of Phnom Penh.
Elsewhere in the country, according to the group, a prominent newspaper publisher critical of Hun Sen had disappeared and 12 members of a police body guard unit loyal to Ranariddh had been arrested.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters said he was “not in a position” to confirm the execution and arrest accounts, apparently because of the confusion that continued throughout Cambodia after Hun Sen’s apparent coup d’etat Saturday.
The comments Burns did make reflected a delicate diplomatic balancing act by the administration aimed at preserving the remains of a 1991 international peace agreement signed in Paris that has nurtured democracy in Cambodia.
While Burns condemned Hun Sen’s armed takeover for the first time Tuesday - the administration initially had declined to choose sides - he pointedly refused to describe the action as a coup, apparently in hopes that the peace agreement might somehow be salvaged.
In carefully worded comments, Burns told reporters that, despite the official condemnation, the United States would maintain contacts both with Hun Sen’s political party and Ranariddh, who fled Cambodia for refuge in France last Friday. “We’re calling on both sides, both armies, both political leaders … to come back to the Paris peace accords,” Burns said.
He also said: “There are very few heroes in this drama, if you look around.”
The 1991 accord led directly to national elections in Cambodia two years later that brought Ranariddh to power. But in hopes of ensuring greater stability, he agreed to share power with Hun Sen in an elaborate arrangement that effectively established two parallel governments. Ranariddh held the title of “first prime minister”; Hun Sen was “second prime minister.”
The international community has invested more than $3 billion in Cambodia’s gradual return to democracy, including $163 million in aid from the United States. With little visible alternative, U.S. officials are desperate to keep the initiative alive in some form.
The United States’ refusal to declare Hun Sen’s takeover a coup or to condemn the reports of human rights’ abuses in its aftermath drew an angry response from some.
Mike Jenrzejczyk, an official at Human Rights Watch, termed the U.S. response “outrageous.” He added: “People in Cambodia are fearful that this might be the start of a mass purge. This is the moment for the international community to be heard.”