A KHMER Rouge terror campaign to disrupt upcoming elections is claiming victims young and old in this northern region of Cambodia, where villagers have been killed by shelling, children wounded in crossfire, and streets become deserted after dark.
Beyond the anxiety and dangers local residents and international peacekeepers face, the terror campaign by the radical guerrillas is jeopardizing the $2 billion United Nations peace mission in Cambodia.
Scores of UN election volunteers have resigned, and questions have been raised about whether a legitimate election can be held in this climate of fear.
In regions such as Damdek, where people live under constant threat of Khmer Rouge attack, Cambodians are thinking more about violence these days than the ballot scheduled for May 23- 27, which is intended to help stabilize the country after 20 years of war and social chaos.
Violence has come from both sides. People loyal to the government have murdered opposition party members and carried out widespread intimidation of those registered to vote, trying to ensure victory for the leadership installed in 1979 by the Vietnamese, who had invaded to oust the Khmer Rouge.
The ruling party, feeling confident of victory at the polls, has apparently eased its intimidation, so the primary concerns now focus on the increasing guerrilla attacks.
In the past two weeks, ambushes on UN convoys, a daring daylight assault by the Khmer Rouge on the strategic city of Siem Reap, and attacks on villages near Khmer Rouge strongholds have heightened fears that the Cambodian peace process is nearing collapse. Since the UN mission began a little more than a year ago, 56 members of the UN operation have been killed or injured in attacks, 40 of those in the past six weeks. And that is only a fraction of the total casualties; few attacks on Cambodians are repor ted.
Nonetheless, Gen. John Sanderson of Australia, commander of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), expresses confidence the elections will be held and said the UN military contingent will not back down in the face of attacks and threats. "Certainly we will fight back if attacked and fight much stronger," he says.
Meanwhile, UN officials are girding for more violence, closing polling sites near Khmer Rouge-dominated areas and requiring personnel to travel in armed convoys in the countryside. Soldiers in many areas are digging more bunkers, or in the case of Bangladeshi troops with the UNTAC contingent in Siem Reap, paying villagers to dig for them. (The villagers' going rate is $15.)
Following an appeal for international aid to help the UN force bolster security, the United States on May 12 flew in 6,500 flak jackets, 10,000 helmets, emergency medical supplies, and flares. Australia plans to provide six Blackhawk helicopters supported by 100 soldiers, and Malaysia was expected to help with air support.
Uncertainty over Khmer Rouge strategy in the build-up to the elections has escalated fears of widespread violence. At the time of the Siem Reap attack, ambushes and raids were reported daily in several provinces, but in recent days the situation has been relatively calm.
UN military observers have detected Khmer Rouge forces massing in many parts of the country. But it is unclear if the aim is to have forces poised for attacks on polling sites or to wait until after the election and renew the civil war that ravaged Cambodia for 13 years before the government and three opposition factions signed a peace agreement in Paris in 1991.
The Khmer Rouge, which imposed authoritarian rule and agrarian reforms in the 1970s that claimed a million lives, has pulled out of the Paris Peace Accord and pledged to disrupt the elections. UN officials say the guerrilla attacks and threats are intended to keep people from voting and remind the government that the guerrilla group still must be taken seriously as a political force despite pulling out of the peace plan.
Even though top UN officials have vowed the elections will proceed, some concede the Khmer Rouge has the capability of causing widespread disruptions with the goal of raising questions over the legitimacy of the voting.
"If they are present sufficiently widely - and they are a guerrilla force which obviously has the capability of movement - and they carry out attacks which are concentrated enough and consistent enough," says Reginald Austin, of Zimbabwe, head of UNTAC's electoral component, "they can stop the elections."