Part of the reason for the government troops' behavior is that money and supplies are reportedly running short. Government troops around the Samrong base, south of O'Smach, have resorted to selling the region's timber to purchase supplies, even dismantling civilian houses for wood. Gunfights reportedly break out nightly between drunken, underfed, unpaid government soldiers as they scavenge for things to sell. Additionally, government raids on local villages have swelled the ranks with child soldiers, who are forcibly conscripted if their parents are unable to pay for their exemption from the draft.
Hun Sen took power in Phnom Penh last July following a brief, violent coup d'etat in which he ousted First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Only three months ago, it seemed likely that Hun Sen would be able to consolidate his hold on the entire country, as his troops crushed all but the last outpost of militant Ranariddh support — the stronghold of O'Smach.
Since then, Ranariddh's soldiers have formed a loose alliance with the Khmer Rouge in northwest Cambodia. In fighting begun on November 30, the opposition alliance claims to have routed government forces from three districts in Banteay Meanchey Province and to have gained control of the entire Samlot-Koh Kong battlefield on the Thai border, down to Thai Dach on the coast. In the Banteay Meanchey fighting, only 215 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, opposition forces claimed that over 600 government troops from Division 7 defected to their side. The government acknowledged there were defections, but claimed they only numbered slightly over 100. Fighting is expected to increase in the coming months, as the dry season sets in.
Hun Sen announced on Tuesday that he is seeking peace arrangements with General Nhiek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal, leaders of the forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh. Hun Sen offered to drop treason charges against the men if they ceased fighting and testified at a trial against the Prince. There are conflicting reports from the rebel camp as to whether or not the offer is being considered, or even whether contact was made in the first place. Pro-Ranariddh forces are holding out in hopes that the Prince will be able to return to Cambodia and compete in national elections scheduled for May. Hun Sen wants the Prince to stand trial for treasonous collusion with the Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen has assured the UN that all exiled opposition political leaders are free to return to Cambodia to participate in the elections, with the exception of Ranariddh and two other princes. The exiles have been slow to return, since Hun Sen's forces rounded up and killed at least 50 of Prince Ranariddh's allies following the coup. On Tuesday, Hun Sen met with an advance team representing exiled opposition members and assured them that it was safe to return. According to the Kyodo News Service, Hun Sen also stated that he accepted a compromise formula in which Prince Ranariddh can return and participate in the election if he is tried in absentia and pardoned by King Norodom Sihanouk if convicted.
Last week, prominent dissident Sam Rainsey accepted Hun Sen's assurances and returned to Cambodia and, on Wednesday, former Cambodian Communist Party leader Pen Sovan also returned from exile. Also on Wednesday, though not an exile, King Norodom Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh following a nine month absence from the capital and a five week absence from Cambodia. When he last left Cambodia, following Hun Sen's rejection of his offer to mediate in the political crisis, the King had declined to say when he planned to return, leading some to believe that he had left the country for good.
As his military battle against the combined forces of Norodom Ranariddh and the Khmer Rouge falters, Hun Sen appears extremely willing to pursue a political settlement to the crisis in Cambodia, even to the point of effectively allowing the return to politics of Prince Ranariddh. But the dry season enables new military offensives from government troops as easily as it does from the opposition forces. If the government troops are able to regroup and turn the tables on the opposition, the long knives could come out again in Phnom Penh and all deals will be off. We are wary of a political strongman who appears conciliatory in the face of momentary military setbacks, when only five months ago he carried out a ruthless, bloody, and stunningly quick coup d'etat.