PHNOM PENH (AP) - Clutching her voting card as if it were a treasure, Reth
Ngon shows the hope that has come to her poor, remote village where years of war
have shattered lives and limbs.
"I want to be able to vote so that there will be peace in my country and people
will stop killing each other," she says.
Since they entered Cambodia under October 1991 peace accords, U.N. voter registration
teams have offered villagers like Reth Ngon, a vision of an entirely new life. For
more than half her 30 years, Cambodia has been at war.
The teams are part of the largest-ever U.N. peacekeeping operation, which is trying
to reverse a history of autocracy, bloody revolution and civil war.
Whether the peacekeepers can end Cambodia's war remains uncertain. Intransigence
by the rebel Khmer Rouge, political killings and problems within U.N. ranks have
led some to conclude that the peace process in unraveling.
Working against formidable odds, the U.N. operation has frequently been criticized
for everything from drunken soldiers to being too soft on the Khmer Rouge, which
ruled Cambodia for 3 1/02 years in the late 1970s.
Some criticisms appear valid.
Yet the peacekeepers have scored successes. They have been welcomed by war-weary
Cambodians and4.4 million out of 5.5 million eligible voters have registered to vote
in elections due for May under U.N. supervision.
The peace accords aimed at ending nearly 13 years of war between Khmer Rouge-led
guerrilla groups and the Vietnamese-installed government.
The operation has not been able to get the Khmer Rouge to cooperate or to stop small-scale
clashes because it works on the assumption signatories will cooperate and it has
no power of enforcement.
It can control civilian administrations, however, and is being criticized by many
people for failing to halt the government security apparatus' increasingly bloody
violence against opposition parties. Violence is expected to surge as the election
nears and everyone remains armed.
The worst-case scenario is an escalation of violence to the point where the elections
are meaningless: resumption of heavy fighting with the Khmer Rouge and the international
community-unable or unwilling to cope-washing its hands of a Cambodia descending
into its former chaos.
The most hopeful view is that the peacekeepers and cooler Cambodian heads will be
able to contain the violence and the Khmer Rouge, increasingly isolated, will die
a natural death.
Recently, some western diplomats say, the U.N. operation has pushed so far into the
85 percent of the country outside Khmer Rouge control that the group is becoming
increasingly irrelevant to the peace process.
Under U.N. supervision, Cambodia for the first time in two decades has independent
media and opposition political parties and its first native human rights groups.
Japan's Yasushi Akashi, who heads the peacekeeping operation, said the post-cold
war world ardently wants peace in Cambodia, and unlike Yugoslavia and Somalia, the
people themselves have agreed on how to achieve it.
"I feel that with the support of the international community and all Asian countries,
we cannot fail," he recently told reporters.
"If we wait for an ideal situation in which all impediments to freedom and democracy
are removed, then we will have to stay here for many more years. But the question
is, what is the minimum of conditions that have to be met to organize free and fair
Since voter registration began Oct. 1, the response has exceeded expectations. Thousands
of people, including soldiers, have come out of Khmer Rouge zones to register. U.N.
teams have registered people who have never voted before and others in remote places
no governments were ever interested in reaching.
U.N. officials also modified their peace plan, encouraging more than 200,000 of 370,000
Cambodian refugees to return from Thailand. Movement of refugees, expected to slow
during the rainy season, actually quickened.
Security in a long lawless, autocratically-ruled area, the Thmar Pook district in
the northwest, has vastly improved since Australian police superintendent Bill Kirk
started training guerrillas to switch to civilian law enforcement.
Kirk recently spoke with 200 local villagers.
"I asked them: 'Don't you think law and order should be enforced the same way
for all people regardless or their status?' They all started clapping,' he said.