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Butchers on a Smaller Scale:
Hun Sen and the Cambodian People's Party

by Bruce Sharp

On July 7, 1997, Hun Sen, the leader of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), overthrew Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in a brutal, bloody coup. Two days of fighting left at least 58 people dead and hundreds wounded. Ranariddh's forces were overwhelmed.

Photo by Bert Hoak The atmosphere in the weeks prior to the coup was one of optimism. Rumors surfaced that Pol Pot, the head of the hated Khmer Rouge, had been captured, and would be turned over to the government to stand trial. The Khmer Rouge were defeated, consumed in the end by their own violence and infighting. But in a bitter twist of fate, killers have become a sought-after commodity in Cambodia. The remaining Khmer Rouge were a prize. Ranariddh, whose soldiers had been battlefield allies of the Khmer Rouge throughout most of the Eighties, seemed poised to absorb them into his ranks. Hun Sen, fearing the effect that this might have on his attempts to consolidate his power, moved to crush Ranarridh before the Khmer Rouge could join him.

In the days leading up to the coup, Hun Sen protested loudly that the Khmer Rouge were murderers, and that they should have no place in Cambodian politics. This is a admirable sentiment. But it is rather odd to hear it from Hun Sen, who is himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier. His defection from the Khmer Rouge came only when one of the many purges conducted by the Khmer Rouge came to focus on his own ranks. One can only assume that he had no particular objection to genocide, so long as it was not directed at him personally.

In the days following Ranariddh's overthrow, Hun Sen's soldiers hunted down supporters of Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC party. Several of the victims were apparently tortured before being murdered; four of the bodyguards of Nhiek Bun Chhay, Ranariddh's top military commander, were found with their eyes gouged out. (Nhiek Bun Chhay narrowly escaped.) Former Interior Minister Ho Sok was shot in the head while in the custody of Hun Sen's military. Chau Sambath, an intelligence expert for Ranariddh, was "shot while trying to escape" according to one CPP account, and "committed suicide" according to another. The United Nations, meanwhile, reported that several persons imprisoned in the wake of the coup had been tortured; they were beaten, forced to drink sewer water, and some had their fingers crushed in metal clamps. Thirty detainees were held in an unlit, unventilated cell roughly six feet wide by twenty feet long. In a haunting echo of the Khmer Rouge years, the CPP denied that FUNCINPEC supporters had been killed. They had, according to the CPP, been sent for "re-education." In the aftermath of these incidents, Amnesty International has issued an appeal to embassies in Cambodia to provide shelter to Royalist party members. Hun Sen's soldiers, meanwhile, celebrated their victory with a looting spree throughout much of Phnom Penh. Even hospitals were not spared. Soldiers stole medicine, beds, and blankets, leaving nothing behind for the care of the wounded. When the UN Human Rights office publicized the killings and torture, Hun Sen called for the replacement of the UN staff and demanded an apology from the UN.

Some scholars have promoted the idea that the core of the Cambodian People's Party was formed from the ranks of "good Khmer Rouge" -- a noble, caring group of kind-hearted revolutionaries who were oppressed by the evil "Pol Pot - Ieng Sary clique."

Anyone who believes that this is so should be reminded that Hun Sen initially acquired the role of "co-Prime Minister" only because he threatened renewed civil war when he lost the UN-sponsored elections in 1993. (For details, see Alan Knight's essay on Hun Sen and Democracy.) Those who still harbor lingering doubts should recall the Easter Sunday grenade attack on pro-democracy protesters in Phnom Penh, an assault that killed at least 18 people and wounded as many as 100 more. After the incident, Hun Sen suggested that opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who arranged the demonstration (and whose bodyguard was killed in the attack), should be arrested. When he finished blaming the victims, he suggested that the Khmer Rouge were responsible. In a sense, he is probably correct: When Hun Sen looks in the mirror, a Khmer Rouge stares back.

The 1998 elections were intended to bestow the mantle of legitimacy on Hun Sen. But the elections were a farce. (See the 1998 Human Rights Watch Report on Cambodia for a detailed description of the conditions in Cambodia leading up to the supposedly "fair" election.) The international community seemed to have exhausted its patience with Cambodia, and clearly intended to wash their hands of the entire matter. Observers rushed to declare the elections "legitimate" even before the votes were counted. After the failure of the UN to enforce the results of the previous election, and the muted reaction to the 1997 coup, one suspects the rest of the world simply decided to declare victory and go home.

After decades of war and violence, the Khmer Rouge are gone. The Khmer Rouge were brutal, stupid despots. Hun Sen is a brutal, intelligent one. In an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, noted Cambodia scholar Stephen Heder described Hun Sen in a single sentence: "He is both a competent political administrator and a ruthless political criminal."

Surely, the people of Cambodia deserve better.


This article was originally written in 1997, and last updated in 1998.

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