Three tactical decisions on Hun Sen's part were clearly evident from the outset: to employ armed units that were directly accountable to himself or the CPP; to disarm and demobilize soldiers in army units commanded by Ranariddh loyalists; and to isolate, arrest, and in several cases, execute senior FUNCINPEC officials. The strategy proved remarkably effective. Within one week of the coup, FUNCINPEC troops had been shorn of their top military command and were retreating from key strongholds in the north around Siem Reap. In Phnom Penh, meanwhile, the searches, arrests, and executions by CPP forces prompted known critics and opponents of Hun Sen to go into hiding or plan their flight from the country.
The first salvos in the coup stemmed from attempts to disarm FUNCINPEC units. On July 2, CPP military units blocked a twenty-truck FUNCINPEC convoy near Prek Taten naval base, twenty-five kilometers north of Phnom Penh; several soldiers were wounded in an exchange of fire between the two camps. The following day, 200 CPP military police disarmed members of Prince Ranariddh's motorcade. Then, on the morning of July 5, CPP forces attempted to disarm soldiers at Tang Kasaing, the main FUNCINPEC military base near Pochentong International Airport. Gen. Nhiek Bun Chhay, the FUNCINPEC deputy chief of staff, ordered his troops to resist, and the fighting between the two camps soon engulfed the city itself.
Over the next few hours, the CPP deployed several units, equipped with tanks and armored personnel carriers, in strategic locations throughout the city. The key units belonged not to the regular army, but to armed forces commanded by Hun Sen confidantes: the interior police, led by Police Chief Hok Lon Dy; the military police,under Keam Savuth; Hun Sen's personal bodyguard, led by Nat Saveun; and former Khmer Rouge fighters commanded by Khmer Rouge defectors Keo Pong and Pon Pheap.13
The troops were often indiscriminate in their firing, and heavy rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and mortar fire prompted many local residents to flee. After an overnight suspension of fire, the fighting resumed on the morning of July 6. Tanks took positions around the homes of Prince Ranariddh and senior FUNCINPEC officials: among them, Nhiek Bun Chhay, State Secretary for the Interior Ho Sok, and Gen. Chao Sambath, director of the defense ministry's intelligence and espionage department. The prince's residence itself sustained a barrage of RPGs.14 By the evening, the CPP controlled Tang Kasaing, the airport, the defense ministry, and the television station, effectively bringing the coup to a conclusion.
During a national television and radio appearance later that evening, Hun Sen declared martial law and stated the positions that he has adhered to since: he accused Ranariddh of illegally importing weapons into the country and attempting to boost the ranks of his bodyguard with Khmer Rouge defectors, said Ranariddh would have to stand trial for his alleged crimes if he returned to Cambodia, and called on renegade and surrendered FUNCINPEC leaders to nominate a new first prime minister.15
Although Hun Sen had reportedly tipped Toan Chhay to be the new first prime minister, Toan Chhay's lack of an Assembly seat presented a constitutional obstacle to his approval. Foreign Minister Ung Huot was then nominated for the post, following a meeting of pro-Hun Sen FUNCINPEC leaders on July 16, and approved by the National Assembly on August 6, in a session that was attended by ninety-nine of the Assembly's 120 members. Belying this surface unanimity, however, were several procedural abnormalities surrounding Ung Huot's selection. Only eleven of FUNCINPEC's thirty steering committee members were in the country at the time of his nomination, which meant that his candidacy was in breach of FUNCINPEC bylaws. In addition, Huot's nomination required the consent of both vice-presidents of the Assembly, but one of them - BLDP leader Son Soubert - had expressed his opposition to Ung Huot's candidacy from his exile in Bangkok. And most critically, Ranariddh himself had never been impeached or removed from office in accordance with the constitution.
13 Human Rights Watch interviews with Cambodian parliamentarians and journalists who fled the coup, Bangkok, July 13 and 17, 1997.
14 Human Rights Watch interviews with Cambodian parliamentarians who fled the coup, Bangkok, July 13, 1997.
15 Among the FUNCINPEC officials Hun Sen named were Loy Sim Chheang, Co-Defense Minister Tea Chamrath, and Toan Chhay. "`Surrender' of FUNCINPEC Troops Declared by CPP," Cambodia Daily, July 7, 1997.