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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Battle Lines Drawn

Battle Lines Drawn

As Cambodians prepare to vote in U.N.- sponsored elections in two days, they do so

in a country that is effectively partitioned and, by any definition, riven by civil

war.

While the Khmer Rouge has launched a military offensive designed to cripple the U.N.'s

ability to conduct elections scheduled for May 23-28, the ruling State of Cambodia

(SOC) has "achieved (a) position of superiority through means that are contrary

to the letter and the spirit of the Paris agreements," a confidential U.N. assessment

obtained by the Post states.

A further worry is that a SOC election victory would result in the formation of an

opposition coalition including virtually all the major groups competing against SOC

in the polls. Senior party officials from the pro-royalist FUNCINPEC and Son Sann's

Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) acknowledge they will probably reject the

poll results if the SOC won the election.

In place of a SOC regime, the smaller opposition groups are expected to join the

Khmer Rouge in a call for Prince Norodom Sihanouk to set up a coalition government

of national reconciliation. Sihanouk is said to be willing to accept such a role

if he is offered real power to form and run a new government.

Despite the poor prospects of a stable government emerging from the polls, the U.N.

Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) has made it clear that it will go through

with some version of the elections, albeit radically different than those envisioned

under the 1991 Paris peace accords. The original conditions which UNTAC chief Yasushi

Akashi and his senior officials said were necessary for elections to be held have

not been met and the criteria have, in effect, been abandoned.

Bowing to reality, the U.N. has now indicated it is prepared to deem the current

conditions as "reasonably free and fair and acceptable." UNTAC is apparently

abandoning the requirements that the elections be held in a "neutral political

environment."

As the creation of such an environment was the primary objective of the U.S. $2.8

billion Paris peace agreements, UNTAC's willingness to accept election results achieved

so far beyond this criteria indicates how deeply the electoral process has been undermined,

observers say.

Opposition figures, and indeed many U.N. officials, also contend that the elections

may be about to install a regime that would have had little chance if the elections

had been held in more neutral conditions.

According to diplomats and senior U.N. officials, UNTAC has long had evidence that

a coordinated campaign of political violence and intimidation is being organized

and conducted by senior Cambodian People's Party (CPP) officials. This campaign has

had a significant impact on the ability of opposition parties to campaign freely.

Despite its awareness of the Phnom Penh regime's behavior, UNTAC has been unable

or unwilling to seize control or adequately supervise the key functions of the SOC,

as required by the peace agreement, in order to protect the electoral process.

UNTAC investigators have concluded that secret security forces controlled by SOC

officials are "poised to conduct large scale arrests of opposition political

party members." They also say "the SOC security apparatus has been used

to try to reverse early opposition party successes with a view to assuring a CPP

electoral victory."

They believe these secret security forces-which SOC maintains do not exist-are controlled

from the highest levels of the CPP with the sole purpose of subverting the peace

process. These covert forces include assassination squads and agents tasked with

intimidating the population, attacking opposition party members and offices and preventing

opposition figures from canvassing freely.

According to confidential U.N. documents, the "SOC is threatening a major confrontation

with UNTAC and violence against UNTAC personnel" who attempt to interfere with

the CPP's campaign against the opposition. Scores of opposition figures have been

killed or wounded in dozens of attacks in recent months throughout the country.

The Khmer Rouge has long cited UNTAC's failure to take control of the country's administration

and create a neutral political environment as one of the main reasons it refuses

to participate in the peace process.

Senior Khmer Rouge officials told the Post that the faction has launched the offensive,

"not for a final military victory, but...to create conditions for an implosion

of the Phnom Penh regime and allow the eruption of popular anger."

During the past month Khmer Rouge guerrillas have begun attacking major cities. The

faction briefly occupied the key provincial capital of Siem Reap in early May during

a raid by 300 troops. Khmer Rouge guerrillas also bombarded Kompong Thom city with

hundreds of rockets and mortars. In addition, at least 13 people were killed when

a train traveling on the main line between Battambang and Phnom Penh was attacked.

A feature of Khmer Rouge attacks to date is that targets have been defined to maximize

political impact. Although UNTAC casualties are mounting, the U.N. organization still

appears to be a secondary target of the guerrillas - who generally concentrate their

efforts on SOC positions.

Despite UNTAC's relative immunity from attack, thousands of U.N. personnel and foreign

aid workers have fled unstable areas throughout the country. Many have arrived in

Phnom Penh, while others have taken refuge in the more secure provincial capitals.

In addition, numerous diplomats and other foreigners have sent their families out

of Cambodia. Those who remain are often restricted to their compounds and have stopped

traveling on Khmer Rouge-controlled roads.

An attack by the Khmer Rouge on a U.N. convoy in the northeast in which a Japanese

police officer was killed led many Japanese police throughout the country to leave

their posts despite being ordered to remain by their UNTAC commanders.

The Khmer Rouge attacks, and the withdrawal of UNTAC officials from dangerous areas,

has reduced the number of rural areas in which voting is likely to take place. But

while the U.N. has abandoned 300 polling stations because of Khmer Rouge-instigated

instability, UNTAC officials say that the remaining 1,500 will be sufficient. "Every

district except one in Cambodia will be covered," UNTAC spokesman Eric Falt

said on May 18. "Every Cambodian who wants to vote will be able to go to a polling

place within 15 kilometers of any village in the country."

The Khmer Rouge offensive is unlikely to affect voting in main provincial capitals,

which are estimated to include more than 50 percent of the electorate, but the result

of the poll could be affected by a shift in the balance between rural and urban voters.

City dwellers are believed to be somewhat more sympathetic to opposition candidates

and liberal parties such as FUNCINPEC. This is bad news for the ruling SOC regime,

whose candidates have been expected to perform strongly in country areas.

While the U.N. insists that voting will go ahead, fighting could intensify. Senior

UNTAC officials and Khmer Rouge sources confirm the guerrillas are rearming demobilized

fighters, upgrading their militia to regular forces and recruiting new soldiers.

The Khmer Rouge has been moving stockpiled weapons to its various fronts, and has

deployed ammunition and troops throughout the country. Areas where UNTAC officials

have been bracing for new attacks include the central province of Kompong Cham and

in the key northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey. Both Kompong Thom city and

Siem Reap continue to be under great pressure. Observers believe the Khmer Rouge

is capable of seizing and holding either city for a short period if they were prepared

to take heavy casualties.

While fighting in the last month threatens to distort the election process, it has

also created new cracks in old coalitions. Khmer Rouge guerrillas were apparently

involved in early May when a battalion of Chinese army engineers in Kompong Thom

were pinned down by a mortar, rocket and infantry attack on the city. The raid, which

saw the Chinese troops return fire, drew a stern response from Beijing.

In Banteay Meanchey, the KR has seized effective military control from its two former

non-communist allies, Son Sann's BLDP and Prince Norodom Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC. Control

of this area would allow the Khmer Rouge to dominate a virtually uninterrupted swath

of Cambodia from the Gulf of Thailand northwards through parts of Kompong Thom to

the Mekong River.

The prospect of a resurgent Khmer Rouge, securely anchored by a string of jungle

bases, has added credibility to SOC's appeals for increased international support

on the assumption that it wins the elections.

The key factor now for Phnom Penh is how long such recognition would take to be translated

into economic and military aid. Without such immediate support, a SOC-dominated government

may not have the strength to survive its opposition.

Ironically, SOC's survival prospects could be improved by the international community's

growing weariness of the Cambodian conflict. Many foreign governments now seem prepared

to strengthen any government that can impose a semblance of stability on the country-regardless

of whether this is done with the benefit of free and fair elections as defined by

the Paris agreements.

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