SREI KA huddled with friends behind her small jewelry booth, speaking in whispers about her fears that political feuds threatening to splinter Cambodia would end all hope of finding lasting peace in this war-weary nation.
Like other vendors in the main market in the provincial capital of Kompong Cham, Ms. Srei said she was afraid that security forces aligned with the renegade officials who had declared her home province part of a new autonomous zone in eastern Cambodia would take revenge on her if she angered them.
But as is the case so many times in the ever-changing world of Cambodian politics, developments changed the situation considerably within 24 hours, and Srei's outlook brightened.
The shift came after the collapse of the short-lived secessionist movement, led by wayward Prince Norodom Chakrapong, and another announcement from Phnom Penh that senior leaders had agreed on an interim government to work for national reconciliation.
The political compromise in Phnom Penh should ease pressure on the UN mission trying to implement a two-year-old peace plan in Cambodia. The effort has neared collapse on several occasions because of the failure to disarm combatants, cease-fire violations, and the refusal of the ruling Communists and their political party, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), to accept the results of UN-run elections last month.
Under the latest agreement, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of the royalist party known by its French acronym FUNCINPEC, and Prime Minister Hun Sen would be co-chairman of the transition government under Prince Ranariddh's father, former monarch Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
But a previous agreement to form a coalition government with Hun Sen and Ranariddh serving as deputy prime ministers under Sihanouk's leadership lasted only one day.
Ranariddh objected to having equal footing with Hun Sen, a bitter political foe, after FUNCINPEC won the most support in the May 23-28 elections.
Ranariddh, however, indicated over the weekend that he was willing to share power in an interim regime, perhaps in an effort to defuse the secessionist movement of his half-brother Prince Chakrapong.
UN spokesman Eric Berman said yesterday that the situation had returned to normal in the provinces that had been declared part of the autonomous zone.
UN staff who had left following threats from secessionists were returning to their posts and UN flights resumed to areas that secessionist leaders had closed.
The attempted secession broke down after Hun Sen went to Kompong Cham to visit provincial officials and persuade them to end their rebellion. They were protesting the election outcome, which gave FUNCINPEC the most seats in the new constituent assembly, a painful rebuke for Hun Sen's outgoing government and his political party.
Hun Sen spokesman Uch Kiman said the scope of the secession had been exaggerated by rebellion leaders, who claimed seven provinces were involved. Mr. Uch said only three provinces had joined the separatist movement.
UN military spokesman John Weiland said UN peacekeepers had seen Chakrapong in a 20-vehicle convoy that crossed into Vietnam early Tuesday morning. People traveling in the convoy handed over weapons to the border guards before entering Vietnam, Lt. Col. Weiland said.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh indicated that Hanoi would not allow Chakrapong to continue separatist efforts from across the border, pledging full support for the peace agreement signed in 1991 by Cambodia's warring factions.
But not everyone was confident the threat from security forces controlled by the old government of the CPP was over.
FUNCINPEC said Wednesday that 4,439 party officials and supporters were fleeing from the countryside to Phnom Penh because of threatened attacks.
While the end on Tuesday of the so-called "King Father Autonomous Zone" after three days brought relief to Cambodians like Srei, many said the rapid shifts in policies were confusing but acceptable as long as the UN could continue its efforts to bring peace to the country.
"One day all the parties have one agreement and then the next day they disagree. They reconcile and then unreconcile," she said.
"Now I feel relief and I think it is a good idea," she said of the decision to abandon plans for an autonomous zone. "Maybe we will have no more war."