PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Until recently, Cambodia's Army spent most of its time shooting at the Khmer Rouge, the hard-line communist faction responsible for the death of up to a million Cambodians. Now government soldiers are pointing their guns in a new direction - at each other.
Last month, hundreds of Cambodian troops clashed in the countryside close to the provincial capital of Battambang, killing as many as 200 soldiers.
By Cambodia's war-torn standards, the violence in itself was nothing spectacular. What caught the nation's attention was that the soldiers were aligned with Cambodia's two main political parties: the royalist party, which goes by the acronym FUNCINPEC, and the formerly communist Cambodia People's Party (CPP).
To many it was a sign that political rivalry in this tiny nation of 10 million had reached a dangerous pitch. "There is a general feeling that the two sides are squaring off against each other, with their fingers on the trigger," warns Sam Rainsy, an outspoken opposition politician.
Cambodia's administration and armed forces have become almost completely polarized along party political lines, making the job of governing virtually impossible.
"The Council of Ministers hardly ever meets. The two parties in power are both behaving like they're in the opposition. There is no national policy and effectively no government," commented a Western aid worker, who asked not be named.
The problems start at the very top. Since 1993, when United Nations-sponsored elections pushed them into an uneasy partnership, relations between Cambodia's "first" prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and "second" prime minister, Hun Sen, have been gradually deteriorating. Though Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC won the election, he was forced into a coalition with Hun Sen's CPP, which refused to accept the vote count.
Enmity between the two sides reaches back over almost 20 years.
Hun Sen, who defected from the Maoist-style Khmer Rouge during its ruthless 1975-78 rule, was installed in power after Vietnam's invasion of its neighbor. His then-communist CPP fought for more than a decade with a resistance movement, based on the Thai border, lead by King Sihanouk, Prince Ranariddh's father.
The resistance was loosely allied with the ousted Khmer Rouge in opposing Vietnam's decade-long occupation and the CPP.
The two sides signed peace accords in 1991 under international pressure. But mistrust still runs deep. Partisan divisions are echoed everywhere. "Even the postman will tell you if he's CPP or FUNCINPEC," Mr. Rainsy says.
Aware of the dangers of escalation, the two premiers are trying to put on a show of unity. But handshakes for the cameras will do little to paper over the huge cracks in Cambodia's polity. Awash with guns and riven by in-fighting, many provinces remain effectively beyond central control. Although independent aid organizations are working to rebuild Cambodia's shattered legal apparatus, many observers note that almost all judges are partisan.
To some, Cambodia's setbacks are an indictment of the UN's $2-billion drive to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia prior to the elections of May 1993. "The experience in Cambodia shows that democracy is the result of a long historic process and is not a starting point," says a Western diplomat. "After the elections in 1993, the UN just cut and run. There was no follow through," adds another foreign worker there.
For the moment, money and power count for more than ideology or national interest. Observers say the balance of power is firmly in favor of Hun Sen and the CPP, which controls up to 80 percent of the Army and maintains an iron grip on most key administrative structures. In government since early 1979, Hun Sen has had ample time to consolidate his position.
Patronage, not ideology, is his political currency. There's a Hun Sen park in the capital and Hun Sen schools now dot the impoverished countryside. "Some people talk of the possibility of a coup d'etat," one French observer says. "But that's most unlikely. The coup has already happened. Hun Sen and the CPP are in control."
Common interests will also help stem any serious breakdown in order. "Over the past few years, leaders on both sides of the political divide have become multimillionaires. They'd have to be stupid to start a war...," affirms a Western diplomat here.
The wild card in this confusing equation is the Khmer Rouge. Following the surprise defection last year of a moderate faction led by Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge has regained a pivotal role in Cambodia's balance of power.
Ordinary Cambodians look on recent developments with a shudder.
Khmer Rouge soldiers wearing government uniforms are now swelling the ranks of the military and the movement has moved from being an outlaw to being a key political player.
Amid the political chaos, there has been some progress though.
Cambodia's economy grew by 6 percent last year. Human rights training has also planted the seeds of an emerging civil society. As the country edges toward new elections, many here remain cautiously optimistic that Cambodia's hard-nosed politicians will decide to fight their next battle at the ballot box and not with guns.