Most accounts of the coup state that it was prompted by negotiations between FUNCINPEC and Khmer Rouge leaders in June and early July. Relations between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh had deteriorated sharply throughout the preceding year, however, and there is strong evidence that Ranariddh's overthrow had been contemplated since at least April.
During the 1992 elections, FUNCINPEC established a narrow majority in the National Assembly. Following a campaign that saw dozens of political assassinations, in which United Nations officials privately pointed to responsibility by CPP-linked death squads, this was a remarkable accomplishment.3 However, FUNCINPEC's right to form a government on its own was challenged by two senior CPP leaders, who attempted to mount the secession of Cambodia's eastern provinces.4 Although their bid collapsed due to internal dissension within the CPP, the threat enabled the party to leverage a role for itself as a coalition partner. The international community's acquiescence at this juncture planted a time-bomb in Cambodia's body politic: an unwieldy and acrimonious government, in which power-sharing between the two parties was reflected in the duplication of most cabinet-level posts.
Most institutions of governance - local-level administrations, the bureaucracy, police, and army - remained CPP-dominated. Although Ranariddh and Hun Sen appeared to have forged a working alliance during the early years of the coalition government, that relationship dissolved as genuine power-sharing failed to materialize. At a FUNCINPEC congress in March 1996, Ranariddh demanded a greater share of civil service posts for his party. But as it distanced itself from the CPP, FUNCINPEC found itself the target of political violence, which through most of the preceding year had been directed against Sam Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party (KNP) and a faction of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP), led by parliamentarian Son Soubert. An early indication of the resurgent hostility between the two coalition partners was the February 8, 1996 assassination attempt on Ek Mongol, a FUNCINPEC radio announcer who shortly before his death had criticized the CPP for corruption and had denounced what he termed Vietnamese aggression along Cambodia's eastern border.
In a "White Paper" issued shortly after the coup, on July 10, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Ranariddh of having forced Hun Sen's hand through an eighteen-month "campaign of provocation" against the CPP. The key charges cited by the ministry were illegally importing arms, unilaterally recruiting "hardline" Khmer Rouge guerrillas into FUNCINPEC-led army units, and reforming the opposition alliance of the 1980s under the umbrella of the National United Front (NUF) - a bloc formed earlier this year that brought together FUNCINPEC, the KNP, and Son Soubert's wing of the BLDP.
Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy represented an unlikely pairing. Sam Rainsy had formed the KNP in November 1995, after FUNCINPEC, at Ranariddh's behest, stripped him of his party membership and expelled him from the National Assembly. But by uniting the CPP's opponents under one banner, the NUF made electoral sense, for it raised the prospect of their outright victory in the 1998 elections. The CPP's prospects in those elections appeared to have factored heavily in the decision to stage a coup. Not only did the White Paper attach great significance to the formation of the NUF, describing it as an opportunistic betrayal of the coalition government, but a survey reportedly commissioned by Hun Sen showed that his party, the CPP, would get only about 20 percent of the vote in the next elections.5
A grenade attack on a March 30, 1997 KNP rally, in which at least sixteen people died and over one hundred were injured, was a harbinger of a violent election campaign. An FBI investigation into the attack, conducted because an American was injured, reportedly implicated associates of Hun Sen, although the report itself has not been made public.6
According to exiled FUNCINPEC parliamentarians interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, Hun Sen attempted to engineer a split in FUNCINPEC's ranks in April 1997 by enlisting the support of dissident party members, notably former deputy prime minister Ung Phan and Toan Chhay, the governor of Siem Reap province.7 Ung Phan reportedly drafted a statement on April 15 that accused Ranariddh of drug-trafficking, acting autocratically, and negotiating with the Khmer Rouge, and called for his removal as head of FUNCINPEC and co-prime minister. Several of the parliamentarians said they had been coercively asked to sign the statement, two in the presence of Hun Sen. In any event, Ung Phan was unable to gather the requisite number of signatures to secure Ranariddh's ouster, and the effort was quietly dropped.
The other charge leveled in the CPP's White Paper - that Ranariddh was shoring up FUNCINPEC's military strength - has never been denied by FUNCINPEC, although the party has defended the legality of its actions. When military authorities in late May seized a shipment of weapons and ammunition, addressed to Ranariddh and marked "spare parts," the first prime minister said he "did not have any choice" but to procure weapons in order to protect himself from CPP forces.8 In the months leading up to the coup, both prime ministers had assiduously expanded their personal security details into private armies that belied their popular appellation of "bodyguards." On at least two occasions shortly before the coup, however, Ranariddh expressed a willingness to reduce the size of his bodyguard unit; a June 24 offer was conditioned on the approval of his security staff, but on July 1, the prince announced that he would unilaterally and unconditionally make the cuts.9
The more acute theater of competition between the two parties lay in the recruitment of the remaining Khmer Rouge factions. Although the CPP White Paper characterized the defection last year of Khmer Rouge commander Ieng Sary and 2,000 of his followers as a matter of bipartisan policy, both FUNCINPEC and the CPP had separately courted Ieng Sary's troops. Forces led by two other Khmer Rouge defectors - Keo Pong and Pon Pheap (the latter originally a FUNCINPEC recruit) - played significant roles in the coup on the side of Hun Sen. Ranariddh, meanwhile, concentrated his recruitment efforts on Khmer Rouge hardliners in the northern enclave of Anlong Veng. The two camps reportedly reached an agreement on July 4, a day before Hun Sen launched his coup.10
But if Ranariddh's alliance with the Anlong Veng Khmer Rouge prompted Hun Sen to put his plans into action, preparations for a coup had nevertheless been made well in advance. In the weeks prior to the coup, Hun Sen had boosted the size of his bodyguard from about 1,200 to 1,500 men, and had simultaneously equipped them with heavier weapons.11 On June 17, CPP and FUNCINPEC forces exchanged fire near the homes of Ranariddh and Chief of Police Hok Lon Dy, a close ally of Hun Sen. A week later, on June 24, Khmer Rouge defector Pon Pheap held a briefing for reporters at Hun Sen's house claiming that Ranariddh was negotiating with the Khmer Rouge "to bring more soldiers into Phnom Penh to fight Hun Sen."12 That charge was to be repeated with increasing alacrity over the next few days by senior CPP officials. While FUNCINPEC was indeed on the verge of signing an accord with the Anlong Veng Khmer Rouge, there is no evidence that the party had immediate plans to deploy their newfound allies against the CPP. And ironically, support from Anlong Veng for FUNCINPEC never materialized during the coup, and most of the Khmer Rouge soldiers who fought in the coup did so on the side of Hun Sen.
3 The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) had received numerous reports that CPP secret police units remained active during the transitional period, and UNTAC officials and military leaders believed that the attacks were either coordinated or condoned by the provincial governments. Asia Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Asia), "Cambodia: Human Rights Before and After the Elections," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 5, no. 10, May 1993, pp. 9-10.
4 The officials involved were Deputy Prime Minister Prince Chakrapong and Interior Minister Sin Song.
5 Keith B. Richburg and R. Jeffrey Smith, "Cambodia: U.N. Success Story Fouled: World Ignored Signals as Premiers' Rift Grew," Washington Post, July 13, 1997, citing "a diplomat with close ties to Hun Sen."
7 Human Rights Watch interviews with Cambodian parliamentarians who fled the coup, Bangkok, July 13, 1997.
8 Catherine Philp, "Weeks of Tension Preceded Phnom Penh Battle," Cambodia Daily, July 7, 1997.
10 Nate Thayer, "Brother Number Zero," Far Eastern Economic Review, August 7, 1997.
11 Richburg and Smith, "Cambodia: U.N. Success...," Washington Post.
12 Philp, "Weeks of Tension...," Cambodia Daily.