PUTTING aside threats from Khmer Rouge guerrillas, and astonishing the international community, fully 90 percent of the 4.7 million Cambodian population turned out to vote in UN-sponsored elections last week. The vote is a testament to the resilience of the Cambodian people, who in the late 1970s and early 1980s were subjected to some of the most brutal terrors of the period. It is also a victory for the UN, which has spent $2 billion in Cambodia since 1991 and held to a course of multiparty elections de spite Khmer attacks killing 10 soldiers and officials. (The Japanese contingent performing their first UN peacekeeping duty are due thanks.)
But the celebration may be short-lived if a new and unsettling development is unchecked. Election results for the new 120-member Cambodian assembly are favoring the opposition party led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Now the current government led by Hun Sen is claiming fraud and wants new elections in three key districts. These stalling tactics, on the eve of defeat, represent a betrayal of the Cambodian people and of the peaceful elections process.
The United Nations is rightly resisting Hun Sen's tactic. Supported by China and the United States, the UN has declared the elections valid. Hun Sen spokesmen deny the government is trying to nullify the election. But they refuse to recognize the results. UN officials have asked the Cambodian government for evidence of vote-tampering, but none has been forthcoming.
The UN has committed far too much time and effort to allow Hun Sen to succeed. It is doubtful the regime in Phnom Penh could follow the recent Burmese example, where the government rejected an overwhelming vote against it in 1991 and closed off the country. The Cambodian government does have 100,000 soldiers, and it has ominously warned of uncontrolled "riots" if Sihanouk wins. But Hun Sen's strategy may be to ride out the official UN mandate in Cambodia, which expires in August, by keeping things messy,
and everyone off balance.
That is why the UN and the international community must stay in Cambodia. It must pressure Sihanouk not illegally to cut a deal allowing the Khmer Rouge back in the process. It must allow Hun Sen a face-saving way out. For the UN to withdraw now would destroy the fragile trust and unity the Cambodians have shown.