A few days after Prince Ranariddh's overthrow at a 10 July meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Malaysia, a firm, though far from punitive, position was adopted. The issued statement reaffirmed a joint commitment to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, but considered Hun Sen's use of force 'unfortunate'. It was also announced that Cambodia's admission into ASEAN would be delayed 'until a later date' and that Prince Ranariddh would continue to be recognised as the 'first' Prime Minister of Cambodia. This announcement was backed up by the United States' decision to suspend its aid to Cambodia for a period of 30 days as well as sanctions imposed by other countries.
Consensus emerged at the summit of the Asian Regional Forum (ARF) which followed shortly afterwards, bringing together ASEAN countries and dialogue partners including the US, Japan, Russia, China and the European Union, that ASEAN should take the lead in addressing the crisis. The dilemmas were evident: to insist on returning Prince Ranariddh to power seemed unrealistic, and would restore the unwieldy coalition government which many countries felt had led to the crisis in the first place. At the same time, a weak reaction would call into question the international community's stated commitment to the Paris agreements and their support for Cambodia's fledgling democracy.
Instead, a strong appeal was made to Hun Sen to adhere to the Paris agreements and the Constitution and ensure that the elections scheduled for May 1998 took place. In the meantime, a 'troika' of three Foreign Ministers (Ali Alatas of Indonesia, Prachuab Chaiyasan of Thailand, and Domingo Siazon of the Philippines) was formed to define a mediatory role and push for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. With King Sihanouk's blessing, the ASEAN troika arrived in Phnom Penh on 19 July to talk with Hun Sen for the first time. The meeting accomplished little, however, with Hun Sen demanding that ASEAN either admit 'his' country by 23 July or 'forget it for the next five or 20 years'.
Internal realignments, mixed reactions
Despite the appearance of unity given by the joint statement, ASEAN's rather weak reaction to the July coup was indicative of the substantial political realignments underway in the regional forum. Vietnam, the newest ASEAN member, remained sympathetic to Hun Sen given both their strong historical links and Prince Ranariddh's publicly hostile attitudes toward Hanoi. Within days of the outbreak of violence, Hanoi expressed appreciation of Hun Sen's 'contribution' to the 'consolidation of friendship and cooperative relations between the two states'.
Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, on the other hand, reacted negatively to the coup, though this did not mean a renewed willingness on their part to support an anti-Phnom Penh armed resistance movement, as they had during the 1980s. In fact, Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh even refused to meet with Ranariddh after the coup despite the fact that his counterparts in Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, had done so. Relations between the two had cooled dramatically since 1993 with Ranariddh seen as unappreciative of past support the Thais had provided to his royalist faction. Moreover, with fears of Vietnamese 'expansionism' in sharp decline in Thailand, commercial interests had quickly come to take precedence over traditional political concerns, and lucrative business relations had been established between associates of Chavalit and Hun Sen.
The backdrop to these mixed responses was the emerging regional economic crisis which increasingly preoccupied the ASEAN countries. The reality, moreover, was that their own mixed record of democracy left them poorly placed to criticise Hun Sen. This was forcefully brought home in January 1998 when Hun Sen snubbed the ASEAN countries, noting that on 'other things, like economics, they can teach us, but on the subject of democracy and human rights, they must not teach us.'
Hun Sen eventually accepted ASEAN's mediatory role on condition that it refrain from interfering in Cambodia's 'internal affairs' and respect a role of strict neutrality. By the end of July, however, Hun Sen had pressured the National Assembly to revoke Prince Ranariddh's parliamentary immunity. This would allow the Prince to be charged with the 'crimes' of illegally importing arms and colluding with the Khmer Rouge – Hun Sen's stated justifications for overthrowing Ranariddh in the first place. Ung Huot, a former Ranariddh minister, was then appointed the new 'first' Prime Minister in order to maintain the illusion that the coalition government was still intact.
At a second meeting between the troika and Hun Sen on 3 August, Hun Sen again criticised ASEAN for interfering in Cambodia's internal affairs. In response to requests that Ranariddh be allowed to return to Cambodia, Hun Sen would henceforth argue that the problem of Prince Ranariddh was a 'legal' one, not a political one, and demand that the Prince cease his armed resistance and face trial for his crimes. While ASEAN, for its part, continued to maintain that there would be no change in Cambodia's 'observer' status within ASEAN until political stability had been achieved, by late August it had stopped raising the issue of who was Cambodia's legal 'first' Prime Minister.
As Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdulla put it: "To us, the question of recognition no longer arises. Our principle is that we have to deal with whichever government is in Phnom Penh". This change of heart was indicative of ASEAN's weakening ability to influence events in Cambodia and Hun Sen's increasing consolidation of power. The remaining fighters loyal to Prince Ranariddh were by then boxed in at O'Smach, their last stronghold on the Thai border, while a number of FUNCINPEC deputies and ministers had made a pragmatic decision to return from exile and work with Hun Sen. Moreover, at the end of October, Cambodia's head of state – King Sihanouk – abruptly departed for China when Hun Sen rebuffed his efforts to mediate in the crisis.
Hun Sen's strengthening position at home, however, did not obviate the need for him to regain some form of international legitimacy which only the elections scheduled for May 1998 could provide. ASEAN declared that it would not grant Cambodia membership until after the elections had taken place and also supported a UN decision to leave Cambodia's seat vacant until such a time. This struck a real blow to Hun Sen. His heavy dependence on international funding to organise credible elections thus opened the way for Cambodia's major donors to become more actively involved in finding a solution to the impasse.
The 'Four Pillars' peace plan
1) All parties should abandon any cooperation with the Khmer Rouge, who are specifically forbidden by the terms of the Paris peace accords from participation in Cambodian political life.
2) Both the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh should implement an immediate ceasefire on the basis that Cambodian territorial integrity should be respected and the soldiers of the former RCAF should be re-incorporated into the RCAF with their original status and safety guaranteed.
3) The Cambodian legal authorities should conclude Prince Ranariddh's trial as soon as possible, after which the King should immediately bestow amnesty on the Prince on the basis of a petition from his family or other parties.
4) The Royal Cambodian Government should guarantee Prince Ranariddh's security and safety in Cambodia and should not bar him from participating in the election, so long as he observes the law of Cambodia.