As Cambodians prepared to vote in June’s commune election, Prime Minister Hun Sen delivered a warning. There would be civil war if his party lost, he said, adding later: “To ensure the lives of millions of people, we are willing to eliminate 100 or 200 people because we have seen bitter past experiences.”
His party didn’t lose, but for those of a certain age his threat was not an empty one. “Hun Sen is not democratic. I remember what happened in 1997,” Chhoun, a middle-aged tuk-tuk driver, told me at a rally for the main opposition party last month.
At dawn on July 5, 1997, Hun Sen’s forces launched a coup against their power-sharing partners in a coalition government. Phnom Penh’s airport was secured by loyal soldiers, as were the capital’s main boulevards. Thousands of Cambodians fled as the military rampaged through the city.
By that evening, the police and military had looted an estimated $50 million worth of goods from the capital. Even more troubling, dozens — some say hundreds — of people were executed. Many were tortured before a single bullet was placed in the back of their skull.
The following day, Hun Sen knew he had control over Cambodia, as he still does today.