PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — FOR two years, Cambodians have lived through what some call a ``Phnom Penh Spring'' - human rights activists able to work in relative freedom, foreign money boosting the economy, and hope replacing despair in a country once divided and impoverished by war.
But evidence is mounting that this openness is now closing as the government, or at least its security forces, may again be using violence to silence criticism.
The capital, Phnom Penh, is a city with an air of freewheeling and frontier lawlessness. But two recent violent incidents have worried officials, diplomats, and others who helped bring in a new government last year with United Nations-sponsored elections.
On Sept. 7, newspaper editor Nuon Chan was assassinated. The following evening, the five-year-old daughter of two UN employees was briefly abducted, shot in the leg, and then released.
``There seem to be several movements in a negative direction going on now,'' says one diplomat here. Preferring anonymity, he adds: ``There is an intimidation going on of people who are digging a little too deeply.''
``It seems that after the election,'' an Asian diplomat says, ``some of the paraphernalia are returning,'' referring to the state-security apparatus that held brutal sway in Phnom Penh for decades.
Chan's newspaper had published accounts of official corruption. A UN Human Rights Center report detailing torture and execution by members of the military operating secret prisons in western Cambodia was leaked to the press in August. The UN vehicle in which the five-year-old was riding was assigned to the center's director.
The government denies any role in the incidents and says it is investigating them. Information Minister Ieng Mouly, questioned about Chan's murder, said he could not ``exclude the possibility that members of the police or the military were responsible for this assassination, but it doesn't mean it's the policy of the government.''
But some observers do see a clampdown on dissent and criticism in Cambodia and point to the political arena to reinforce the contention. On Oct. 20, the National Assembly approved Cabinet changes proposed by First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The most prominent switch was the ouster of Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, who has won international praise for his efforts to stabilize the economy. Mr. Rainsy often diverged with Prince Ranariddh and ``trampled on the financial resources and incomes of a lot of people,'' in the words of one Western diplomat, alluding to the former minister's efforts to stop corruption. On Oct. 23, Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivuddh said he would resign to protest Rainsy's dismissal.
``Right now [the government] is not concentrating on developing the country, but on subduing those against the government,'' says Pin Samkhoun, the head of the Khmer Journalists Association.
To be sure, Ranariddh does not have an easy job. He heads a tenuous coalition brought to power by the UN elections, the keystone of a $2-billion multinational effort to bring peace and stability to the country.
The government is still fighting a war of insurgency against the Khmer Rouge rebels, whose 1975 to 1978 reign resulted in nearly one million deaths.
Ranariddh's government includes the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), a formerly communist party that ran the country on behalf of Cambodia's Vietnamese invaders from 1979 to 1993. Ranarridh's own party, called FUNCINPEC, the acronym of its French name, won the UN election, but has had to share power because the CPP threatened to disregard the results and divide the country still further if it were not included in the government.
The result has been an uneasy mix of FUNCINPEC reformers, such as Rainsy, and CPP hard-liners who still have a lot to gain, through illegal corruption schemes, from opposing or delaying reform. The CPP still runs much of rural Cambodia and its members control many key functions in the central government, including agencies that may be involved in intimidation.
King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's mercurial monarch, lends some stability to the leadership and sometimes serves as a mediating force, but he is increasingly spending long periods out of the country because of health problems.
In recent months, Ranariddh and his CPP counterpart, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, have reportedly begun to work together more closely, an effort that may make the government more effective.
And even the most concerned observers are unwilling to publicly accuse the government of repression - at least for now. The problem is a lack of evidence: ``There's just not enough yet,'' as the Asian diplomat puts it.