Factions Plan Cambodia Vote, Even Without Khmer Rouge

CAMBODIANS and the United Nations hope to win some short-term stability in May legislative elections despite the long shadow of the defiant Khmer Rouge.

At a meeting of three of Cambodia's four rival factions in Beijing last week, the UN announced that legislative elections will be held in Cambodia on May 23-25.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, the UN agency overseeing an international peace plan, is pushing ahead with the poll even though the radical Khmer Rouge ignored a Jan. 27 deadline for election registration and denounced the vote as a farce.

The election, planned after intense negotiations by Western and Asian backers, comes as Cambodia's peace settlement is floundering. The Khmer Rouge has proved recalcitrant, and violence and intimidation have increased between the radical guerrillas and security forces of the Phnom Penh regime.

"It's a risky play," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "But the UN will have its hands full, not just with the Khmer Rouge but also [Phnom Penh] security forces."

Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the country's monarch, is expected to anchor the UN bid to gain Cambodia a short-term respite. The prince maneuvered to win international sanction to become the country's interim head of state, and now declares he wants to be elected president.

The UN wanted to hold simultaneous legislative and presidential polls. But Prince Sihanouk, who is expected to run without major opposition, wants the presidential election held after the general vote, in which about 15 parties and more than 4.6 million voters are expected to participate.

The election for a new president, which is still subject to UN Security Council approval, is intended to bolster the country's representative government as it writes a new constitution. A 22,000-strong UN peacekeeping force is administering the country and overseeing the election as part of the largest UN operation ever.

The election is also aimed at wooing back the support of the temperamental prince, who is the chairman of the interim Supreme National Council comprising the four Cambodian factions. Sihanouk has recently lashed out at the UN for failing to carry out its peacekeeping mission.

Indonesia and some other Asian sponsors of the peace process also hope to persuade the Khmer Rouge to participate in the presidential poll if it is held separately. The guerrillas have said they will join a presidential poll if the winner is given total authority over the competing factions and the legislature.

The Marxist Khmer Rouge is blamed with the deaths of more than a million Cambodians during a reign of terror in the mid-1970s. The guerrillas were overthrown in 1979 by the invading Vietnamese Army, which installed the current government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Despite the pullout of most Vietnamese troops in 1989, the Khmer Rouge contends that Hanoi's forces remain in the country and refuses to demobilize and disarm under UN supervision. They initially went along with the peace plan.

Khmer Rouge guerrillas are expected to impede voting through kidnappings, village attacks, and shelling. Although the rebel group controls resource-rich areas along the Thai border and parts of the crucial Route 12, which links Phnom Penh to the north, analysts say the Khmer Rouge has shown itself unable to mount major military campaigns. Many Western analysts doubt the group's ability to retake power if the peace process collapses.

Instead, the guerrillas may capitalize on anti-Vietnamese sentiment, economic disarray, and corruption in Phnom Penh. The government has faced growing condemnation by human rights activists for intimidation by its security forces.

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