Hanoi's Role in the Cambodian Coup
The recent coup d'etat in Cambodia marks another sad twist for the long-suffering nation. As with much of Cambodia's unfortunate history, this crisis was in part caused by external forces. Just one day before grabbing power, second prime minister Hun Sen was said to be "vacationing" in Vietnam. In reality, he was there to consult with the Vietnamese communist leaders and be ready to do their bidding.
This coup was driven as much by the determination of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) from preventing democracy in their own country, as by the fear of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) from seeing democracy take root next door. A frightful scenario for Vietnam's communists is the existence of a free society bordering Vietnam, providing both democratic influences and debunking completely the notion of human rights being foreign to "Asian" values.
Faced with the likelihood of losing elections planned for 1998, the Hun Sen forces had been escalating the violence against political opponents. One of the most striking incidents was the March 1997 grenade attack on a crowd of demonstrators with the intent of assassinating Sam Rainsy, a leading opposition figure. This violent trend culminated in the bloody coup on July 5, 1997, timed apparently by reports that first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh had reached tentative agreement with remnants of the Khmer Rouge to join his coalition. While the Khmer Rouge deal finally forced Hun Sen's hand, the coup and violence leading up to it were part of Hun Sen's ongoing effort to achieve the power he could not win at the ballot box. But Hun Sen could not have acted alone. His long time dependence on communist Vietnam points to the role of the VCP in instigating and supporting the CPP-led violence in Cambodia.
Indeed, the origins of the July 5, 1997 coup lie not in the visit by Hun Sen to Vietnam the day before, but in his stay twenty years prior. In 1977, Hun Sen, a commander in the Khmer Rouge, along with other high-ranking comrades, defected to Vietnam to avoid the worst of Pol Pot's purges. Under the tutelage and protection of Vietnamese communist leaders, the Khmer Rouge defectors were groomed to form a future pro-Hanoi leadership in Cambodia.
In January 1979, these erstwhile defectors rolled back into Phnom Penh--behind an invasion force from communist Vietnam. Hun Sen was made foreign minister of the puppet government. In 1985, he was promoted to prime minister. The dream of the Vietnamese communists was to form a "Federation of Indochina" from which to launch their expansionary ambitions across southeast Asia. Laos and Cambodia were made virtual colonies.
To cement its hold over Cambodia, Hanoi exercised total control over the Phnom Penh government. Cadres from Vietnam ran all the major ministries, including Health, Education, Banking, Commerce, and Security from behind the scenes. At the top of the chain of command were secret agencies within the VCP Central Committee to direct every aspect of Cambodian political life.
By the late 1980s, the costs of occupying Cambodia had become immense due to the cut off of aid from the Soviet Union and the crippling international embargo led by the U.S. To end its international isolation, Hanoi agreed in 1988 to pull its nearly 200,000 front-line troops home. The VCP did not give up, however, its desire to dominate Cambodia's internal affairs. Over a million Vietnamese "settlers" remained in the country. At the same time, the VCP continued to supply a steady stream of advisers to prop up the regime in Phnom Penh.
Ironically, it was the "Vietnamese menace" that provided any remaining appeal for the Khmer Rouge. While the Pol Pot-led organization lost all popular support during the notorious killing fields, its virulent anti-Vietnam position recovered for it a grudging audience. Hanoi's backing of the puppet government in Phnom Penh presented the Khmer Rouge the ability to sell itself as the best means to achieve a truly independent Cambodia--regardless of what the Khmer Rouge had done to an independent Cambodia from 1975-78.
Hanoi's backing of Hun Sen was manifested, most recently, in the 1,500 man heavily armed bodyguard unit Hun Sen had built up by the spring of 1997. According to knowledgeable sources, 600 soldiers came directly from Vietnam's security forces operating undercover in Cambodia. Hun Sen's private army started the clash in June that left two of Ranariddh's bodyguards dead, spearheaded the bloody coup, and conducted the ensuing hunt down of political opponents.
Shortly after the coup, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened an emergency session to discuss the turn of events and reassess Cambodia’s application for ASEAN membership. Noticeably absent from the meeting was the Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Manh Cam. However, Hanoi made known its strong displeasure when the rest of ASEAN's government decided to suspend Cambodia's entry into the trade bloc. In fact, Hanoi has accompanied its covert support for Hun Sen's overthrow of the democratic coalition led by first prime minister Ranariddh with a vigorous diplomatic campaign stressing "non-interference."
According to Mr. Cam: "Vietnam regards these [developments] as Cambodian internal affairs which can be solved only by the Cambodia people. Vietnam's consistent policy is to strictly respect Cambodia's independence and sovereignty and not to interfere into its internal affairs."
In reality, the consistent policy of the Vietnamese Communist Party has been the complete opposite. Consequently, it is improbable that Hun Sen would undertake such a blatant power grab given especially the dependency of Cambodia's official budget on international aid without strong assurances from his long-term benefactors in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese regime no longer poses the overt military threat to its neighbors that it once did, but the coup in Cambodia shows clearly its ability and willingness to be a force for instability in the region. The current political regime denies not only its own people the bounty of democracy, but makes it impossible for Cambodians to enjoy democracy as well. If a multi-party democracy were to finally flourish in Cambodia, how would the Vietnamese Communist Party justify its monopoly on power to the Vietnamese people?
Index of issue 08/97
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