Experiencing the Coup in Cambodia 1997

In the fall of 1996 Susan and I moved to Cambodia. A few months later there was a military coup on 5-6 July 1997—how about those fire works! In these two days, the forces of Hun Sen’s CPP faction almost totally gutted the royalist FUNCINPEC faction, killing most of its political and military leadership and chasing Prince Ranariddh to Thailand. The fighting on these 2 days was almost exclusively between the soldiers of the two sides, largely concentrated in Cambodia’s major cities—like Phnom Penh where we were living. What followed, though, was a week+ of looting by the CPP soldiers who hadn’t been paid for about 6 months (their version of receiving back-salary). The first few days of this looting was the most dangerous period.

At this time, the IC team members in Cambodia were Susan and me, Sue Lloyd, Tammy Fong and Phil Vetter. Susan and I were living in the team office in Bung Salaang. Tammy, Sue, and a Cambodian friend, Mome, were living in a wooden stilted shack community on swampy land not far from the team office. Phil and Or Vannarith were living in the center of Phnom Penh.

A few days before the coup, our friend Kristen came to visit us from China. At the start of her visit she mentioned that there seemed to be a lot of heavily armed soldiers everywhere. We were so used to soldiers loitering around that we didn’t take much notice—it had become normal to us, we just avoided them as they would frequently shake people down for beer/cigarette money.

On the afternoon of the 4th, Susan started a children’s bible study at our neighbor’s house. A boatload of kids came, and parents of kids in the neighborhood brought their children and told them to listen to what the foreigner is teaching. Our friend helped, and was awed by the freedom to teach about God and the response of the children/parents—quite different from China!

The fighting in our part of the city started sometime after sunrise, before 7am, on the 5th. It started with small arms fire which sounded a lot like pop guns. Further in the distance we could hear the report of something larger; this turned out to be tanks exchanging shots. Much of the heaviest fighting took place on the 5th. The fighting tapered off as the sun set.

In the twilight we watched the tracer bullets whizz across the darkening sky, like multicolored hyper-caffeinated fireflies screaming this way and that (mostly whites, yellows and greens, though with reds and oranges thrown in the mix; Cambodia was—and still is—awash with arms from all over the world, and different countries use different chemicals to make the pyrotechnic charge in their tracer rounds, so this was a particularly disastrous and deadly demonstration of multiculturalism/globalism expressed in Cambodia).

Early in the day, during lulls in the fighting, our neighbors tried to flee this part of the city, with varying degrees of success. The fighting was particularly heavy in our area as a FUNCIPEC general and a senior advisor to the Prince lived near us. At some point our landlord just disappeared on us without saying a word; he locked his doors and quietly slipped away (counting on us to stay and protect his stuff!). Throughout the day neighbors scurried from this house to that for news. People were afraid to stay; people were afraid to leave as well: who would protect their belongings? They knew from experience that when the fighting stopped looting would likely happen—whether the soldiers or their own neighbors. It was quiet that night.

Just before sunrise on the morning of the 6th, Susan, Kristen, and I strapped some suitcases to my motorcycle, hopped on board, and joined a group of about 30 neighbors, mostly women, children and older folks, trying to leave the neighborhood. We hoped to get out before the day’s fighting began in earnest. As the sky lightened we heard scattered, sporadic firing, single soldiers taking potshots at each other. The group started out to the main road which would take us to safer parts of the city.

When we reached the local elementary school a machinegun opened up nearby, causing all of us to hit the dirt (which was a trick for the three of us loaded down on my bike). The soldiers nearby saw that we were just a group of civilians trying to get out of the way, so both sides stopped firing, and our group got back on its way. As we went around a curve in the road into a safer zone the firing behind us picked up again. Ten minutes later Susan, Kristen and I were at Phil’s.

I cannot remember if Sue, Tammy and Mome were there yet or not. At Phil’s we made plans for getting food, water, fuel, other supplies we’d need, and we divvied up responsibilities for this. Phil and I went to the US embassy and other NGOs for news, and we (along with the city) hunkered down to see what would happen next. The fighting between the soldiers of FUNCINPEC and Hun Sen’s CPP faction was mostly over by early afternoon on the 6th.
By that evening, when it was clear that FUNCINPEC was soundly thrashed and the fighting was over, CPP soldiers began taking vengeance on FUNCINPEC- and Thai-related businesses (FUNCINCEP had ties to Thailand, CPP to Vietnam), ransacking them. The Heng-Heng moto-market was surrounded by CPP soldiers in APCs and systematically emptied of an estimated 10,000 motos—all in a few hours.

Once the soldiers were done and had moved on to the next feeding trough, people living nearby descended on the market, taking whatever they could find. Bedlam. Feeding frenzy. I remember one wizened grandma exiting the fray with an enormous smile on her face as she was able to grab an old, scratched up 12V moto battery. And I remember adrenaline-charged young men eyeing me as I sat on my motorcycle; I could see in their faces a calculation about whether or not an expat’s bike was worth the trouble they might get into. During this time people were being killed on the streets for things like cars and motos.

When Sue, Tammy, Mome, Susan, Kristen and I left our houses, we took only a few vital things. So the group decided that Rith on his bike and Mome with me on mine would drive into our neighborhood, check on the houses and grab some things on the morning of the 7th. We left just after sunrise and took paths and back alleys, at one point driving through the grounds of the Monk’s hospital, avoiding the main roads which were controlled by CPP soldiers. The soldiers were allowing people out of the area of our houses, but not in, with tank squads stationed at major intersections.

We go to our houses, checked on them, and grabbed some stuff. While Mome was checking on Tammy’s and Sue’s houses, Rith and I went and checked on another friend’s house near the team office. Their house had been totally gutted, car stolen, windows smashed, furniture, clothes all taken. Among the flotsam and jetsam the only things Rith and I could find were their family Bible (!), some family photos, and a tripod. Later we found out that the soldiers had taken their car but most of the rest of the looting was done by neighbors—including their landlord who lived down the street.

After Rith, Mome and I were done checking on the houses, we got on our bikes and started our trek back to Phil’s house. It was about 8am. We decided to leave the area by the main road—the dike road which rings the city—as the soldiers were allowing civilians to travel out of the area on this dike road, though at times shaking them down for money or belongings. We followed the dike road to where it enters the center of the city, intersecting a major blvd. At this intersection is a red light area and a lumber area (these two pretty much always coincide for some reason in Cambodia). The soldiers had been up all night partying and drinking with the local ladies. Most solders were sleeping it off, with just a few disheveled, bleary-eyed wrecks awake enough to watch people as they exited the area and give alarm as needed. This intersection was at the end of an S-curve, and at this intersection in the middle of the road a tank sat (a Russian PT-62, I think). The soldiers had suspended a 2x4 from the right-side of the tank to the nearest building, forcing people to go by on the left of the tank where the sentries sat playing cards.

Rith, on his bike, and Mome and I, on my bike, entered the S-curve, not knowing what’s ahead, turning first to the left and then to the right, and then immediately in front of us sat a HUGE tank with its turret pointed in our direction. This was the first time I had ever been this close to a tank. Until you stand next to one it’s hard to appreciate just how big and how fright-inducing they are.

As I came around the last curve, I saw the 2x4 extending from the right of the tank and went to the left of the tank, past the sentries without incident. Rith did not see the 2x4, seeing instead the group of sentries to the left, and steered to the right of the tank, hoping to avoid the soldiers. As Mome and I passed the tank and sentries we heard a CRACK—it was Rith’s motorcycle’s headlamp hitting the 2x4 and knocking him off his bike. Of course this startled the sentries and woke everyone up. They were not happy. They yelled at Rith to get up and bring his bike to them. Rith, sporting some fresh strawberries on a hand and knee, righted his bike and walked it over to the soldiers. I stopped in the street just past the tank. The soldier and Rith exchanged a few words and both turned to me and Mome and wave us to go—just keep driving. A crowd started to form to watch this spectacle.

The ranking sentry was clearly not happy about Rith trying to avoid a shake-down, about a foreigner being there, about a crowd forming, about having to guard this place with a hangover so early in the morning, about not being paid in many months, about…. The soldier yelled at Rith, and Rith tried to wave us away again. Mome and I continued to sit on my bike without budging.

The crowd by now was about 150 people—an ellipse with foci at Rith/sentry and Mome/Mark. The sentry looked about, talked to another soldier, and barked something at Rith. Rith emptied his pocket of $10 which he gave to the sentry. The sentry angrily waved Rith away. Rith got on his bike, started it (fortunately it started!) and the three of us drove in silence to Phil’s. I could see that Rith’s hands shook as he drove, still frightened from the experience. All three of us were. At that point in time anything could happen on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Within a few days order was restored in Phnom Pen and throughout the country. We all went back to our homes, none of which were looted. Kristen left for the US, and I went back to language study as before.

At the end of her visit, Kristen remarked that China and Cambodia are opposites: in China there was great security but no freedom—she could walk around at 3am and not be bothered, though the minute she tried to share Christ she would be stopped—whereas in Cambodia there is great freedom but no security—we can freely evangelize/disciple but pesky coups may get in the way.

- Mark Smith, InnerCHANGE Cambodia