Cambodian Vote on Track Despite Violence


THE electoral process is well under way here. But with politically motivated violence on the rise, a climate of fear prevails that the United Nations currently seems unprepared to dispel, UN, diplomatic, and Cambodian political sources say.

By late November, 1.3 million out of roughly 5 million eligible Cambodian voters had registered to vote in the May elections. Fourteen political parties had set up more than 80 offices around the country. These numbers far exceed UN expectations.

Yet a recent surge in political intimidation and grenade attacks, several assassinations, and the capture this week of UN peacekeepers have highlighted the inextricable link between adequate human rights protection and the success of elections.

"We don't know if it is coordinated but there is something very ugly going on and it is very worrisome," a Western diplomat in Phnom Penh says.

The Dec. 1 capture of six UN peacekeepers by the Khmer Rouge in central Kompong Thom Province came a day after the UN Security Council imposed an oil embargo against the rebel group for refusing to disarm. A spokesman for the top Khmer Rouge leadership said the the local commander would be told to release the peacekeepers.

With calculated intent or not, the Khmer Rouge's seizure starkly demonstrates the disruptive potential the rebel group retains over the peace process it has not yet joined, but which it has not repudiated either.

Slightly more cooperation has been forthcoming from the Phnom Penh government. But the UN's position is fragile, wedged between the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh regime, which both still regard politics as a duel with their mortal enemies.

Many of the recent attacks on political workers have been perpetuated by officials of the de facto government in Phnom Penh, Western diplomats say. In some instances, the Phnom Penh officials have obstructed UN investigations.

The sharp deterioration provoked UN Special Representative Yasushi Akashi to issue a warning to all factions that the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) "will not hesitate to use its powers under the Paris Agreement to ensure that" human rights are respected and culpable officials are held responsible.

Various meetings were called between senior UNTAC and Phnom Penh government officials, including one in which Prime Minister Hun Sen promised Mr. Akashi a directive would be sent out to all provinces ordering local officials to remain neutral.

UNTAC has begun an extensive human rights education program for police, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and human rights activists. The program will help the participants apply new standards incorporated in a provisional penal code drawn up by the UN and adopted by Cambodia's Supreme National Council (SNC). The SNC has representatives from Phnom Penh and the three rebel factions.

"Our training and education program is going great guns but it will mean little if we cannot overcome the climate of fear," an UNTAC official warns. "And to do that Cambodian people have to see UNTAC doing something about these cases."

Almost all parties report rising intimidation and frequent attacks, including:

* Grenade attacks on the Battambang office and homes of the party loyal to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, on Nov. 5 and 7.

* Twenty-one attacks on the party led by former Prime Minister Son Sann since it opened offices in Phnom Penh government-controlled territory.

* A deputy in a Son Sann party provincial office and his 67-year-old mother-in-law were gunned down at home Nov. 2. The attackers had worn Phnom Penh Army uniforms and demanded money and gold. UN officials say the incidents are often made to look like botched robberies.

No suspects of politically motivated crimes have been apprehended thus far, although the UN says it has the names of some wanted for questioning.

Opinion among political parties here varies about whether the attacks are coordinated.

Less sophisticated officials, long accustomed to calling the shots and enjoying the spoils of office, have not adjusted to the changed rules of the game, says Ok Serei Sopheak, a spokesman for the Liberal Democratic Party.

"Of course it is coordinated. This is a communist government and nothing like this happens just by chance in communist countries," says a Sihanouk official who requested anonymity.

The UN recently banned Phnom Penh officials from visiting the offices of other political parties without getting prior approval from the UN. The UN is also expected to upgrade its civilian police presence at these offices around the country.

The military side of UNTAC was recently redeployed to protect civilians working on the election after the failure to disarm and demobilize 70 percent of the four factions' armies. Three factions complied, but the Khmer Rouge backed out of the agreement.

"UNTAC is being too polite and in this country you can't be that polite if you want to change something," says Chak Saroeun, president of the Action for Democracy and Development Party.

In some instances, nothing apparently has been done by Phnom Penh officials to prosecute the accused even when they have been identified, UN officials say.

In frustration, UN officials are beginning to explore additional measures, including the possible establishment of a UNTAC prosecutor's office that would be empowered to make arrests, according to UN sources.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.