Talks began in Paris in the late 1980s to set the terms for a Vietnamese withdrawal. The talks gained momentum as the Soviet Union collapsed and funding to Vietnam decreased, as Vietnam could no longer afford to waste its scant resources in Cambodia any longer.

In December 1988, Vietnamese troops began leaving. In September 1989, the Vietnamese announced they had finished their pullout, but the government they had set up was still in place. China called the withdrawal a sham and said they would continue supporting the Khmer Rouge until a political solution was sorted out.

At the time there was rivalry between four factions: 1) the remnants of the Vietnamese-supported government; 2) a group associated with Sihanouk; 3) supporters of a former prime minister named Son Sann; and 4) the Khmer Rouge, which remained active from its base in northeast Cambodia.

According to Lonely Planet: “As the Cold War came to a close, peace began to break out all over the globe, and Cambodia was not immune to the new spirit of reconciliation. In September 1989 Vietnam, its economy in tatters and eager to end its international isolation, announced the withdrawal of all of its troops from Cambodia. With the Vietnamese gone, the opposition coalition, still dominated by the Khmer Rouge, launched a series of offensives, forcing the now-vulnerable government to the negotiating table.

Diplomatic efforts to end the civil war began to bear fruit in September 1990, when a peace plan was accepted by both the Phnom Penh government and the three factions of the resistance coalition. According to the plan, the Supreme National Council (SNC), a coalition of all factions, would be formed under the presidency of Sihanouk. Meanwhile the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) would supervise the administration of the country for two years with the goal of free and fair elections. Paris Peace Agreement in 1991

In October 1991 Cambodia's warring factions, the UN, and 18 foreign nations, including the United States, France, China and the Soviet Union, signed an agreement in Paris intended to end the conflict in Cambodia. The agreement called for the setting up of a temporary governing council composed of representatives from the current government, with United Nations peacekeeping forces and teams to supervise eventual elections.

The agreement provided for a temporary power-sharing arrangement between a United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and a Supreme National Council (SNC) made up of delegates from the various Cambodian factions. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former king and prime minister of Cambodia, served as president of the SNC.

The Paris accords and the UN protectorate pushed Cambodia out of its isolation and introduced competitive politics, dormant since the early 1950s. UNTAC sponsored elections for a national assembly in May 1993., and for the first time in Cambodian history a majority of voters rejected an armed, incumbent regime.

As part of the agreement the Khmer Rouge was invited to participate in the new government in exchange for laying down their weapons. Some scholars equated this with letting Nazi Germany take part in the rebuilding of Europe after World War II. The Khmer Rouge signed the treaty but quickly reneged on the deal and refused to disarm. It also boycotted the 1993 election and did its best to disrupt them.

The United Nations moved in with a huge peacekeeping force. In 1991, Prince Sihanouk was restored as a constitution monarch. In 1993, he returned to Cambodia after almost two decades of exile. After the 1993 election, while he was still in China, Prince Sihanouk was named as King.

United Nations Peacekeeping Effort in Cambodia

After the 1991 peace agreement was signed, 22,000 United Nations personnel—16,000 soldiers, 4,000 police officers ad 2,000 diplomats, secretaries and staff members—came to Cambodia and $2 billion was spent on an 18 month peacekeeping and election-monitoring effort mission that ended with the May 1993 elections. The United Nations mission in Cambodia was the largest and costliest effort by the U.N. to bring peace and democracy to war-ravaged nation, ever.

When the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm, United Nations peacekeepers scattered around the country, mostly in weak units of Malaysians, Indonesians and Uruguayans that had no desire to engage in fighting with the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge closed off roads to their territory, the peacekeepers did not challenge them.

According to Lonely Planet: “UNTAC undoubtedly achieved some successes, but for all of these, it is the failures that were to cost Cambodia dearly in the ‘democratic’ era. UNTAC was successful in pushing through many international human-rights covenants; it opened the door to a significant number of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) who have helped build civil society; and, most importantly, on 25 May 1993. Even today, UNTAC is heralded as one of the UN’s success stories. The other perspective is that it was an ill-conceived and poorly executed peace because so many of the powers involved in brokering the deal had their own agendas to advance. To many Cambodians, it must have seemed a cruel joke that the Khmer Rouge was allowed to play a part in the process. [Source: Lonely Planet +]

“The UN’s disarmament programme took weapons away from rural militias who for so long provided the backbone of the government’s provincial defence network against the Khmer Rouge. This left communities throughout the country vulnerable to attack, while the Khmer Rouge used the veil of legitimacy conferred upon it by the peace process to re-establish a guerrilla network throughout Cambodia. By 1994, when it was finally outlawed by the government, the Khmer Rouge was probably a greater threat to the stability of Cambodia than at any time since 1979. +

“UNTAC’s main goals had been to ‘restore and maintain peace’ and ‘promote national reconciliation’ and in the short term it achieved neither. It did oversee free and fair elections, but these were later annulled by the actions of Cambodia’s politicians. Little was done during the UN period to try to dismantle the communist apparatus of state set up by the CPP, a well-oiled machine that continues to ensure that former communists control the civil service, judiciary, army and police today. +

Election in 1993

Elections were held in May, 1993. Around 86 percent of Cambodia's eligible voters cast ballots, many dressed in their best clothes, despite threats of violence. There were a lot of problems with the elections and the losers didn't like the results.

FUNCINPEC (the United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia), the royalist party led by Prince Norodom Randariddh, a son of King Sihanouk won but not with a clear majority. The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was in second. It was led by Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector, who led the Vietnamese-backed government before the elections.FUNCINPEC took 58 seats in the National Assembly, while the CPP, which represented the previous communist government, took 51 seats.

After the election, Hun Sen claimed he had been cheated and threatened to go war—and seven provinces declared their were going to secede in protest—if he was not allowed to share power. The United Nations and the United States, neither having the stomach for more turmoil, caved in to Hun Sen’s demands. Hun Sen still controlled a large military force that was loyal to him and they were prepared to fight United Nations troops.

To avoid violence and turmoil, the FUNCINPEC was forced to form a coalition government with Hun Sen. Prince Sihanouk brokered a power sharing deal between Hun Sen and Prince Randariddh and declared himself a constitutional monarch. Under the compromise arrangement, a three-party coalition formed a government headed by two prime ministers; FUNCINPEC's Prince Norodom Ranariddh became first prime minister, while Hun Sen became second prime minister. With all the messiness seemingly under control, the United Nations forces left.

Coalition Government Between 1993 and 1997

After this move Cambodia had two prime Ministers: Prince Randariddh and Hun Sen. Ministries were divided up among them. Their government had two of everything: two armies, twin heads of every ministry. Although he was designated Prime Minister No.2 while Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was Prime Minister No.1, Hun Sen adeptly maneuvered members of his party into key ministerial positions in the Cambodian government, controlled key police and security units, and built up a larger, better-supplied army than the prince.

In September 1993 the government ratified a new constitution restoring the monarchy and establishing the Kingdom of Cambodia. Sihanouk became king for the second time. After the 1993 elections, no foreign countries continued to recognize the DK [Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge] as Cambodia's legal government. The DK lost its UN seat as well as most of its sources of international aid.

The coalition government was characterized as ineffective and corrupt and paralyzed by rivalries between Hun Sen and Prince Randariddh. The legislature was for all intents and purposes shut down between 1993 and 1997. It was headed by a Chea Sim, a military strongman and a member of the Cambodian People's Party.

A year after the elections, poverty was worse in the crowded slums in Phnom Penh, while cronies of both Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh had lined their pockets through illegal logging, drug trafficking, money laundering and opening up businesses like casinos.

As part of an effort to clean up Cambodia, the government ordered the closure of military-run casinos; an ending of "checkpoints," where soldiers intimated motorists and exhorted money; and freed up the press. But generally the government was perceived by most Cambodians as corrupt and inept and Cambodia was still plagued by warfare, terror, consumption, poor administration, poverty, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy. Half the national budgets came from foreign aid. The International Monetary Fund cut off money because of corruption.

One member of the prince’s party told the Economist, “Prince Ranarridh was brought up in the royal family. He is used to being given things. Hun Sen was an agricultural laborer, he know how to take.”

According to Lonely Planet: The unrealistic power-sharing relationship between Ranariddh and Hun Sen worked surprisingly well for the next three years, but relations between the parties were never smooth. The CPP's control over the army and the police gave the party effective control of the country, and it dominated the coalition government.

Sam Rainsy

Sam Rainsy established Cambodia's first opposition party—the Khmer Nation Party—in November 1995. Some 30,000 people joined the party in the first month and lines with 500 people waited outside the party headquarters to sign up. The Party was declared illegal soon after it was set up because it was not properly registered. Later it became known as the Sam Rainsy Party.

Sam Rainsy looks like a university professor. He wear glasses, oxford shirts and dark suits. He is known for sticking up for the rights of workers and the poor. In 2000, Rainsy went on a hunger strike to protest the embezzlement of funds by corrupt officials intended to help victims of severe floods.

Sam Rainsy was born in Phnom Penh in 1949. His father, Sam Sary fled the country in 1959 when Sam Rainsy was ten, while his mother was thrown into prison. He moved to France in 1965, studied there and then worked as an investment manager and executive director in a variety of Parisian financial companies. He became a member of the Cambodian FUNCINPEC Party, and after returning to Cambodia in 1992 was elected a member of parliament for Siem Reap Province the following year. He became Minister of Finance, but was expelled from the party after losing a vote of no-confidence in 1994. In 1995, he founded the Khmer Nation Party (KNP), which changed its name before the 1998 elections to the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) to avoid registration issues. Sam was elected a member of parliament for Kompong Cham province in those elections, and the party polled 14 percent of the vote. In the 2003 elections, it polled 22 percent of the vote. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Prince Ranariddh

Prince Ranariddh was regarded as optimistic, charming but weak, feckless, politically unskilled and kind of stupid. He seemed to relish in the perks of power more anything. According to some his closest advisor was his cocker spaniel Tiffin.

The second son of King Sihanouk, Prince Ranariddh was born in January 1944. He received a law degree from a university in France in 1967 and a doctorate in public law in 1976. He was given asylum in France in 1970 and stayed in France during the Khmer Rouge years in power. He was named chief of staff in FUNCINPEC in 1986 and made chairman in 1991.

Hun Sen muscled in on Prince Ranariddh’s premiership. He justified his actions with the belief that Prince Ranariddh was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and enjoyed a life of luxury in exile while he stayed in Cambodia during the worst years and did his best to hold Cambodia together when he was the leader.

Royalist Coup Plots, Violence and Assassination Attempts

In the summer of 1994, King Sihanouk's estranged son, Prince Nordom Chakrapong, and another man were arrested for attempting a coup. The prince was exiled to Malaysia. He had traditionally been a rival of Prince Ranariddh for the control of the royalist loyalists.

In December 1995, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, half-brother of the king, was arrested for plotting to kill Hun Sen. Amnesty International concurred with the prince's claim that arrest was political. The Prince was imprisoned in Phnom Penh’s filthy T-3 prison. The vent was serious enough that Hun Sen ordered tanks into the streets of the capital and King Sihanouk decided not to leave the country but ordered his plane to be ready to go at a moments notice.

As evidence against Prince Sirivudh the government produced a scratchy tape from a telephone conversation in which the prince said, "If this is not resolved, I will kill Hun Sen...and I always do what I say." The first member of the royal family to return to Cambodia after the departure of the Khmer Rouge, Sirivudh was well known in Cambodia for his loose lips and his big mouth.

"Ever since we arrived here, we have heard nothing but talk about threats, conspiracies, murder and plots," Sirivudh's wife told Time. "I guess that is difficult to explain to the outside world, but these are typical topics of casual conversation here."

In February, 1997, a dozen people died in clashes between Hun Sen supporters and Prince Randariddh supporters in Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city. In March 1997, 16 people were killed and 100 were injured when men threw four hand grenade that exploded at a political rally, where crowds called for reforms to the justice systems. Sam Rainsy was nearly killed. The grenade throwers reportedly melted into crowd watched over by Hun Sen's bodyguards.

In June 1997, fighting broke out around Prince Randariddh's luxurious compound, with a story rockets landing int the garden of the residence of the U.S. ambassador. Hun Sen's provoked violence by conducting searches of royalist positions.

Coup in 1997

On July 6, 1997, Hun Sen ousted Prince Randariddh and seized control of the Cambodian government in a military coup, saying "I am the only captain of the ship." The move was reportedly prompted by a peace agreement made between the Khmer Rouge and his rival Prince Randariddh would weaken his position politically.

Three weeks earlier, Hun Sen said the prince had to either "join the Khmer Rouge or [remain in] the government." He accused the prince of collaborating with the Khmer Rouge, officially a criminal act, and receiving arms shipments even though Hun Sen had done the same thing.

Before the coup, Prince Randariddh had been trying to enlist factions of the Khmer Rouge to fight against Hun Sen. There were also reports that Prince Randariddh may have planned to stage his own coup. One western observer told Newsweek, "You don't want to put him in a position which he has nothing to lose."

Hun Sen reportedly financed the coup in part with $1 million gold and cash donated by Theng Bunma, reportedly Cambodia's richest man. Hun Sen also reportedly offered the top Royalist general, Gen. Khek Bun Chlay, $2 million if he gave up.

Hun Sen replaced Ranariddh with Ung Hout, , a more pliable FUNCINPEC figure, as the First Prime Minister and himself still as the Second Prime Minister until the CPP's victory in the 1998 election and thus becoming the country's sole Prime Minister in 1998. During that year the media broadcast him as the Strong Man of Cambodia which he later said was premature, and that the July 1997 was merely, the government taking action against the paramilitary anarchy that was sponsored and brought to Phnom Penh by Norodom Ranariddh. In an open letter, Amnesty International condemned the summary execution of FUNCINPEC ministers and the "systematic campaign of arrests and harassment " of political opponents. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hun Sen's action shocked foreign nations and delayed Cambodia's entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). By the end of 1997, Cambodia was the only nation in the region that was not a member.

Fighting, Killing and Looting During the Coup in 1997

Hun Sen used government tanks and troops loyal to him to take power. One diplomat told Newsweek, "too often Hun Sen's way of solving problems is through force." During the coup, Russian-made T-54 tanks rumbled though the streets of Phnom Penh; rockets were fired at the residences of Prince Randariddh loyalists; foreigners rushed to get on the airport to get on flights out of the country before it was closed; and corpses were scatted along the streets. Hun Sen's troops—who identified themselves with the yellow and red bandannas because their uniforms were the same as of troops loyal to Prince Randariddh—hunted down Royalists.

Troops loyal to Hun Sen captured the headquarters of Prince Ranariddh's party and surrounded the compound where he lived (Prince Randariddh fled the country to Paris on the eve of the coup after being warned that a coup was in the works). Hun Sen then made a radio broadcast declaring that the prince was no longer Prime Minister.

Most of the the fighting took place in Phnom Penh but there was scattered fighting across Cambodia, including a battle between royalists and Hun Sen supporters outside Angkor Wat. In some places foreign nationals were evacuated and residents vacated the cities using carts and bicycles and boats in scenes that reminded some of the Khmer Rouge’s evacuation of the cities in 1975.

Hun Sen's soldiers went on a looting spree, taking cars from show rooms, motorbikes form garages, and televisions, refrigerators, food, and golf clubs from homes around the airport. Soldiers broke into electronics shops and auto parts stores. Nurses left patients unattended in hospitals so they could guard their homes.

There was two days of heavy fighting and three days of looting. Hun Sen's supporters killed at least 100 people. Among the dead were 41 of the prince military and political allies, including two ministers. Another was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Others were civilians caught in the crossfire. Corpses and burned out tanks, lay along the main roads.

One royalist member of the electoral board, a double amputee, was found with his skull smashed, his eyes gouged out, his fingers and ears cut off and the skin pealed from his stumps. His death was listed as a suicide. Other royalists were burned to prevent identification. The lucky ones were imprisoned or forced into exile. Troops loyal to Prince Ranariddh made their last stand at O'Smach, a small town three miles from the Thai border.

There were reports of a terrorist hit list drawn up by Hun Sen supporters to get rid of political opponents. Some of the dead were on this list.

After the Coup in 1997

Hun Sen insisted Prince Ranariddh was a traitor and a military court tried the prince in absentia and convicted him of smuggling weapons and colluding with the Khmer Rouge and sentenced him to 35 years in prison and fined him $54 million for damage that occurred during the coup (he was later pardoned by his father).

As a result of the coup, Cambodia was denied a seat in the United Nations and membership in ASEAN. Donor nations suspended aid payments (quite a blow considering that foreign aid made up half the national budget); tourism dropped off; hotel construction stopped. Not everyone was pessimistic. Some suggested that one man rule might end the political gridlock that characterized the Hun Sen-Prince Randariddh coalition.

Hun Sen set about trying to bolster his image. He acted like a man running for office, campaigned in places like Preky Tnaut, where he opened the new Hun Sen road, the new Hun Sen bridge, the new Hun Sen irrigation canal, and the new Hun Sen school. In a town near the Vietnam border he opened the Hun Sen pagoda, the Hun Sen dormitory for monks and the Hun Sen school for monks.

Human rights groups reported scores of politically-motivated murders after the coup. In some cases bodies with clear signs of torture were dug up from shallow graves. Some were reminded of the Killing Fields.

Hun Sen assembled a cabinet made up of some former members of Randariddh’s party. Foreign Minster Ug. Huot was named as the prince’s replacement. He was a Khmer Rouge refugee who had a great deal of credibility in the West.

In August 1997, Hun Sen called for exiled legislators to return. The legislators didn't return right away over concerns about their safety. Later they trickled back. Prince Ranariddh returned to Cambodia in March, 1998 after receiving amnesty from his father, King Sihanouk. He was welcomed home with a rally with thousands of chanting supporters. He became the president of the National Assembly.

Elections in 1998

Hun Sen needed money from the international community and sought some respect as a legitimate leader. His solution was to call an election. Hun Sen won the July 27, 1998 election. The three main parties won 88 percent of the vote. Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) came in first place with 41.4 percent of the vote and 64 of 122 seats by using a new formula to allocate seats. FUNCINPEC was second with 32.2 percent and 45 seats. And the party led by Sam Rainsy, the popular former finance minister, was third with 14.4 percent of the vote and 13 seats. The remainder was divided among the smaller parties.

Thirty-nine parties were on the ballot and 90 percent of the 5.4 million eligible voters turned out at 11,000 polling sites. The voting was conducted relatively peacefully. The opposition had threatened to boycott the election but in the end they took part and campaigned vigorously along with Hun Sen.

About 500 international observers were on hand to observe the election. They reported that as far as they could see the election was reasonable free and fair, but reportedly there was a lot they didn’t see. The CPP harassed opposition candidates and party workers before and after the elections, when dozens were imprisoned and several were killed. The election gave the CPP a plurality of votes, but results, especially in towns, where voting could not be dictated by local authorities, indicated that the party did not enjoy widespread popular support.

A large 17-day protest erupted over the election results and irregularities. Opposition party members cried foul and Prince Ranariddh refused to accept the results. There were reports of voter intimidation, fraud, electoral manipulation by National Election Committee and the local election commissions, which were controlled by Hun Sen's party. There were also reports of killings of members of opposition parties; a monopolization of radio and television by Hun Sen’s party, and the payment of bribes.

Prince Ranariddh and another opposition candidate, Sam Rainsy, took refuge abroad and contested the outcome of the election. In November the CPP and FUNCINPEC reached an agreement whereby Hun Sen became sole prime minister and Ranariddh became president of the National Assembly.The parties formed a coalition government, dividing control over the various cabinet ministries. In early 1999 the constitution was amended to create a Senate, called for in the 1998 agreement. These signs that Cambodia's political situation was stabilizing encouraged ASEAN to admit Cambodia to its membership a short time later.

Death of Pol Pot and the End of the Khmer Rouge

Pol Pot died in 1998, and by early 1999 most of the remaining Khmer Rouge troops and leaders had surrendered. Rebel troops were integrated into the Cambodian army. In 1999 two Khmer Rouge leaders were arrested and charged with genocide for their part in the atrocities.

See Khmer Rouge

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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