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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN caught in middle of political fray

UN caught in middle of political fray

TWO offices of the United Nations have come under fire from police who say UN monitors

made their job more difficult by protecting street protesters.

Police impounded a UN vehicle on government orders as "a lesson" for perceived


UN workers say they only did their job: staying neutral, monitoring Cambodians' right

to peacefully express their political opinions, trying to prevent violence from any

quarter and stepping in with humanitarian aid when required.

Police say the United Nations has been hindering them as they try to control street

demonstrations, and one diplomat said Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was "furious"

about their work.

The office of Lakhan Mehrotra, the United Nations Secretary-General's personal representative

in Cambodia (UNSGPR), which has an agreement with the government to monitor the safety

and political rights of politicians who returned to the country after July 1997's

coup, had been sheltering opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his wife Tioulong Saumura

until press time. Both are elected MPs.

The Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR), which has

a mandate to promote and protect human rights, has had its workers on the streets

monitoring demonstrations; UNSGPR monitors have been working with them.

The constant presence of blue-hatted monitors and flag-flying vehicles at demonstrations

- sometimes in front of marchers - has irked government members. "Both were

seen as intervening in the demonstrations," said a diplomatic source of the

two offices. "For Cambodia, there is no difference."

Gen Chhin Chan Pour, deputy chief of the national military police, said:"We

have interference from the foreign people, especially... the UN. They don't stay

politically neutral; they back up the anarchic mob," he said.

Although the UN has monitored pro- and anti-government marches alike, monitors admit

that many opposition demonstrators and authorities perceive the UN to be on the opposition's


"They cheer when we arrive, they carry UN flags," said one UN source of

the opposition demonstrators. "What can we do?"

Tensions reached breaking point Sept 14, when police halted an anti-government march

- which two foreign tourists, waving UN and US flags, had helped lead - near the

Hotel Inter-Continental. Journalists stopped police who were beating a man, and carried

him to a UNSGPR vehicle.

Police refused to let the car take the victim to a hospital, instead claiming it

had to go to the Ministry of Interior. UN monitors negotiated with police commanders

for over half an hour before the car was permitted to pass.

The victim was safely delivered to Kossamak hospital, but the police then impounded

the vehicle and detained UN staff for several hours.

About an hour later, police shouted at a COHCHR monitor at the march scene and pushed

her into her car. Police had detained and beaten several opposition protesters who

had been stoning a house; the UN monitor tried to approach the detainees' vehicle

but was shoved away, witnesses said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak praised the work of most UN staff in Cambodia,

but claimed that "some" were not being neutral in their work.

He said the impounded car had been "leading the demonstration", and that

it had been held with "no intention to keep it, just to give them a lesson".

A diplomatic source said Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was "furious with the

UN," adding, "It may be reasonable to expect him to expel people."

The government has threatened the COHCHR with expulsion in the past, and put pressure

on certain individuals within it.

Monitors who have tried to avert violence and transported injured people to hospitals

defend their role on humanitarian, not political, grounds.

One decried the government's "incredibly simplistic" thinking, noting that

helping a wounded man because you have the nearest car does not imply an acceptance

of his political beliefs.

Neither, the source continued, does stopping a police officer from beating a protester

- or vice versa.

"We are not neutral in terms of violence... I don't think anyone could suggest

that to stop gratuitous violence is outside our mandate," said the UN human

rights worker.

But Municipal Police Chief Neth Savoeun said the UN and police "have to carry

out the law together, and if we do not carry out the law together, that means police

don't have the standing and the society is not strong". He added that detaining

the car was "a very difficult job for police".

COHCHR director Rosemary McCreery stood behind her staff, noting their job included

the ability to "intervene in certain cases, particularly when individual's rights

are being violated, such as arbitrary arrest, beating, or at worst killing."

She maintained that her office was doing nothing different than they have done at

factory demonstrations or other protests. "But when there's 15,000 people in

the street, things start to look a little different."

Their ICOM radio network has also been "heavily infiltrated" by both sides,

she said.

Khieu Sopheak complained that UN radios squawk out anti-government rhetoric. McCreery

acknowleges those messages, but says she hears as many pro-government break-ins as

opposition ones.

Indeed, McCreery said she was "very concerned" at death threats directed

towards her Cambodian staff Sept 13 over the UN ICOM radio network. She said she

had taken measures to protect them but declined to elaborate. "Our principal

concern is the safety of our staff."

The COCHCR staff continues to keep four or five mobile teams out every day.

In contrast, UNSGPR sources say monitors in their office have been pulled off the

streets since the Sept 14 incident. That office is also in the spotlight for sheltering

Rainsy and Saumura, who fear for their lives since Hun Sen announced an arrest warrant

for Rainsy Sept 7.

The warrant never materialized, but Rainsy has been at the office ever since. UNSGPR

workers say the couple is sleeping on the floor of the office while their situation

is being assessed, and that they have given assurances they will not undertake political

activity while there.

However, Rainsy has met with Prince Ranariddh twice, given one brief press conference,

and laid a wreath outside the UNSGPR office where one of his supporters was shot

by police. Saumura also has her own mobile telephone inside the office, and Rainsy's

cabinet has continued to release statements.

Political activity is thought to make the pair more liable to arrest; the UN office

is not an embassy and cannot provide full international refuge.

A government spokesman said they are free to leave in safety. "I assure you

that Sam Rainsy has the full right of movement, expression, political activity,"

said Khieu Sopheak. "He will not be arrested ... he has the full right to go


Yet UNSGPR sources say they believe Rainsy may still be in danger.

"The government has created a cloud of uncertainty about Rainsy's status, probably

deliberately," said one source. "You can't say what degree of jeopardy

he is in."

Some in the opposition see it as ironic that Rainsy is paralyzed by fear of violence

inside the very office which is supposed to be monitoring his right to exercise political


"If their goal was to make sure that opposition party leaders could be politically

active throughout the election process, then in the end they didn't succeed - because

Rainsy is completely neutralized by the threat of violence from the regime,"

said one SRP official, noting that a neutralized Rainsy is a boon to his rival, Hun


"However independent, impartial and objective you are, you get caught in the

middle," said one UN source.



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