Us secretary of State Colin Powell said America could resume direct aid to Cambodia, provided the July 27 election was held in a free and democratic manner. That was his message to reporters at a press conference on June 18, and echoed his words given earlier in the day to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who heads the National Assembly and the royalist Funcinpec party.
The US halted direct aid to Phnom Penh after the violence of July 1997, when forces loyal to Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) shattered those of its coalition partner Funcinpec. Hundreds died in the fighting and its aftermath.
Ranariddh, who was ousted from his role as First Prime Minister, told reporters that he would not comment on the violence of six years ago.
"However I hope the upcoming election will be democratic because the US has indicated its willingness to reinstate aid to the new government," he said.
The news comes as Funcinpec, which is in coalition with the CPP, and opposition parties are concerned that the Pagoda Boys, a gang of Hun Sen loyalists, could start a campaign of intimidation against the PM's opponents.
"As the leader of Funcinpec, I hope [the CPP] will allow me to have freedom of expression without intimidation and pressure, and let the people have a free vote," Ranariddh said. "It's encouraging to hear the US will consider increasing its financial support if it is satisfied the upcoming elections are free from political intimidation and violence."
Powell, who was visiting the country for the ASEAN Regional Forum to discuss security, political and economic issues across the region, also met on June 19 with Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
Rainsy told reporters that Powell's comments "send a strong message to Hun Sen and his henchmen that the US is watching".
"With reference to alleged CPP threats that civil war would break out if the SRP wins the election, Powell said he hopes the election will be a true representation of the Khmer people's opinion," Rainsy said.
He added that Powell had indicated there would be "consequences" if the ruling party did not respect "the minimum democratic principles" during the campaign period.
"Political violence will not be tolerated, so I think it is a powerful and timely warning to Hun Sen and his party followers," he said.
Senior Minister Sok An, a leading CPP figure, also met the US foreign secretary. He assured Powell that the election would be conducted in a democratic environment, particularly when compared against the 1998 general election.
"The Khmer Rouge are no longer present, and all the political parties in Cambodia have strengthened their support at the grassroots level," Sok An told reporters on June 19.
Powell's position on the conduct of the election was welcomed by Funcinpec and the opposition, but he was less clear about precisely how the US would gauge whether the elections were held in a democratic manner.
Ranariddh said that would likely depend on the opinion of other election-watchers.
"As far as Cambodia is concerned, it depends on the outcome of the election and if the rest of the world considers it to have been run fairly," he said.
Although the number of political killings has not yet reached the scale of the 1998 national election, observers are concerned that the number of violent incidents will rise as polling day nears.
The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which has international observers in the most important provinces, has already warned of improper conduct by some village and commune chiefs, most of whom are allied with the CPP.
In a June 17 statement, ANFREL recorded numerous cases in which village and commune chiefs had violated election rules. ANFREL called for punishment against those chiefs who had used their position to influence the election; confiscated IDs or photocards; asked people which party they intended to vote for; prevented people from participating in political activities; or intimidated voters.
"Disputes over party signboards are reported from almost all provinces, where chiefs of communes did not allow several parties to put up their signboards, or threatened people who had put signboards on their private land," the report stated, adding that some commune chiefs had restricted access to water by members and supporters of opposition parties.
Other problems were noted in a recent report on the election by the US-based body, Human Rights Watch (HRW). The organization stated that opposition party activists and other human rights NGOs had "expressed concern" over the activities of the Pagoda Boys, which HRW described as "an organization of Hun Sen loyalists who have helped police disperse rallies and have publicly threatened members of Funcinpec and the SRP".
"Constraints on freedom of expression, assembly and association do not contribute to an open political climate, and past practices of voter intimidation and harassment and threats of opposition party supporters are again in use across the country," HRW stated.
International bodies and foreign governments are also involved to try and ensure that voters are not intimidated. Japan's Foreign Minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, told the ASEAN meeting on June 17 that Cambodia needed to promote a broader participation of its citizens in the election. That would allow democratic government to take firm roots here.
Kawaguchi said that establishing a democratic and stable government, particularly within ASEAN's newer member countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, was seen as key to attaining full cohesion within the regional body. However, she noted: "Fostering democratic and stable governance is often easier said than done."