World's Experiment to Plant Democracy in Cambodia Shrivels

The UN's most ambitious and expensive effort to bring peace and democracy to a country has gone belly up.

A power grab by Cambodia's well-entrenched ex-communist leader has ousted the nation's most popular political party led by the king's son.

The violent coup wipes out three years and $2 billion of work by the international community to stabilize a poor Southeast Asian country that is still recovering from decades of civil war, Khmer Rouge genocide, and US bombs.

Fighting in the capital has led co-premier Prince Ranariddh to flee to France, ending an awkward power-sharing coalition forced on him even though he won a UN-run election in 1993.

His ouster over the weekend by fellow premier Hun Sen, head of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and an ex-Khmer Rouge fighter, has left leaders in the West wringing their hands.

Fissures split the ad hoc coalition from the start. The partners were long-time battlefield enemies, with Ranariddh's royalist FUNCINPEC party heading a Khmer Rouge-backed alliance to oust the government installed by the Vietnamese after their 1979 invasion and which Hun Sen came to lead in 1985.

Each side had its international sponsors, with China, Thailand, and the United States backing the FUNCINPEC-Khmer Rouge alliance, with Vietnam and the then Soviet bloc supporting Hun Sen's communist government.

Personal hatred contributed to the breakup. But more important, the incessant bickering never allowed Cambodian democracy to take root. And while Hun Sen has unilaterally declared himself leader, Ranariddh's call for support has been met with a silence so far.

The fighting has so far claimed at least 12 lives in the capital and the situation around the country is tense. But ordinary Cambodians in this nation of 10 million are hoping that the weekend's events will not lead to a return to civil war.

"It's a nightmare," said a Cambodian official who asked to remain anonymous. "It's like going back to 1975," when the Khmer Rouge forces seized power and launched their four-year reign of terror, which left more than 1 million Cambodians dead.

With the 1991 peace agreement shattered, the question now is whether Cambodia's regional and international partners will once again come in to pick up the pieces.

Japan, which provides Cambodia with more than $100 million in annual aid, is seen as a key player in getting the warring factions to negotiate. "Japan has been trying to settle the dispute for the past two months," notes a Japanese diplomat in Bangkok. "After this weekend's developments we don't know what to do. But we'll continue our efforts."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which will admit Cambodia as a member later this month, has adopted a hands-off approach for now. Noninterference in the internal affairs of its members is the official creed of the group.

Two regional wild cards are China and Vietnam, whose long history of animosity has been intertwined with the Cambodian conflict. China was the primary ally of Khmer Rouge-led Democratic Kampuchea. Following Hanoi's 1979 invasion, Chinese troops launched retaliation attacks along northern Vietnam and started shipping weapons to the Khmer Rouge for their guerrilla war against the Vietnamese.

Although relations between the two communist powers are now officially cordial, few doubt that China would like to reestablish its influence in Cambodia to thwart Vietnam. "Chinese leaders never forgive and forget," argues Son Chhay, a member of the Cambodian parliament.

"They'd like to get Cambodia away from Vietnam, but they don't know how," he says.

China's best chance to regain influence was through a rehabilitated Khmer Rouge allied with FUNCINPEC.

That option now appears to be shut off by Hun Sen, who is virulently opposed to any reintegration of the guerrillas.

Some observers see a Vietnamese hand in the recent disturbances, noting that the CPP coup shortly followed Hun Sen's return from a visit to Vietnam. "Vietnam would like to have Cambodia as a satellite like Laos," claims Mr. Chhay, whose faction of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party is allied to FUNCINPEC.

What is certain is that the international community as a whole doesn't appear ready to gear up the support to save Cambodian democracy that it demonstrated in establishing it.

United Nations officials had already warned Cambodia not to expect much help in carrying out elections scheduled for next May, elections that look increasingly doubtful. "They told us not to count on it," recalls Pung Chhiv Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a group which planned to help monitor the campaign and vote count.

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