PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Filled with veterans of civil war and factional infighting, the Cambodian People's Party is no place for wimps. "For many in the CPP," says a Western observer here, "it's been 20 years of thinking, 'Who wants to kill me today?' "
But the political violence that occurred here on July 5 and 6 is deeply troubling to some in the party. Sar Kheng, deputy prime minister and a key CPP leader, concedes that one event in particular did heavy damage to the government's credibility.
On July 7, a top-ranking Ministry of Interior official named Ho Sok was arrested and then interrogated and executed - in his own ministry.
An ally of exiled First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranarridh, Ho Sok was seized for his alleged role in illegal arms transfers and discussions with outlawed rebels. Before his arrest, he had unsuccessfully sought refuge with Singaporean diplomats in Phnom Penh.
Mr. Sar Kheng said in a Monitor interview that he tried to have Ho Sok moved to a "safer place," before learning that the man had been shot by an as yet unidentified group of men. The deputy prime minister, who also oversees the Ministry of Interior, has suspended two police generals pending an investigation and says he suspects that police were responsible for Ho Sok's killing.
The longer the case remains unsolved, the greater the fear that political assassins can act with impunity in Cambodia.
"People see that they can kill someone right on the grounds of the Ministry of Interior and get away with it," says a United Nations human rights worker, who declined to be identified further. The situation does not comfort opposition politicians contemplating a return to Cambodia after fleeing to Thailand during the July crisis, particularly those who have already survived assassination attempts.
UN investigators have said more than 40 people have been murdered, possibly for political reasons, since the July disturbance, but the number may be higher. A top military official says privately that 16 political killings have taken place in one southern province alone.
Sar Kheng says the core issue is the need to depoliticize the country's soldiers and police officers. Despite UN efforts toward this same goal, Cambodia's security forces are essentially a collection of armies who once opposed each other on the battlefield. Their political allegiances die hard.
The deputy prime minister, who is now preparing laws on elections and political parties that will lay the framework for national elections in May 1998, promises action: "In order to have stability in Cambodia, we should make the armed forces neutral. We will not allow Cambodia's armed forces to join politicians in confrontations."