KOMPONG SPEU-Nestled amidst the lush rice fields just 60 km south of Phnom Penh,
KOMPONG Speu gives a sense of quiet detachment, away from the hubbub of the nearby
capital-and the troubled countryside beyond.
Wooden and brick houses line the main street and old women make fires from timber
which has been brought down from the surrounding hills.
But KOMPONG Speu is also a hotspot for the coming May 1993 national elections, which
hold out the greatest hope for the country's future. Along the main street, six political
parties have already set up offices and party members move around town on motorcycles
and bicycles trying to encourage residents of voting age to register at the local
UNTAC electoral site.
Inside the spartan offices, officials on tiny budgets are in the midst of election
campaigning. "People have survived in many regimes," says one FUNCINPEC
official. "Now they want a party that can maintain peace and independence."
But the mood of hope brought about by the first democratic elections held here in
decades is tinged with fear-not only by the refusal of the Khmer Rouge to disarm
and involve themselves in the elections, but also by the existing government, the
State of Cambodia, which has inspired terror among the other political parties.
Members of SOC are suspected of being responsible for a number of attacks on other
political parties and of making threats to locals and state employees who are enrolling
in those parties.
Two months ago in the village of Thpong, a two-hour drive from KOMPONG Speu, a teacher
who was also a member of FUNCINPEC was allegedly killed after refusing to give up
a party membership card. Other public servants have been threatened with expulsion
from their jobs unless they enroll with SOC's Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
In November alone, some 10 to 15 complaints were filed with UNTAC's Human Rights
Component office in KOMPONG Speu. So far this year, more than 300 complaints have
been received by organizations throughout the country. Most of those complaints have
concerned allegations of harassment from SOC.
At FUNCINPEC headquarters, just a few hundred meters down the road from UNTAC Human
Rights Component office, Loom Sip Ha, chief officer for the province, claims that
party members have been repeatedly harassed and threatened. "We are afraid to
travel from one village to the next because SOC people may harm us," he said.
The local FUNCINPEC party, which has a monthly budget of U.S.... $1,000 to cover
all operating expenses, including a U.S. $500 monthly rent, has complained to UNTAC
but has seen little results to date.
At Republic Democracy Khmer Party (Redek) office, a wooden building down the road
from FUNCINPEC, it's a similar story.
"People are intimidated by the SOC, and UNTAC is afraid to get involved,"
said Sok Sein, a 55-year-old former-technician in a textile factory who is now the
chief of the Redek office.
Redek, a liberal party led by a Cambodian American, has recruited 1,112 members in
the province since it opened up shop in mid-November, and while party officials do
not expect to win the coming elections outright, they hope to gain seats in the constituent
Meanwhile, overshadowing all political activity in the area and in the country, is
the Khmer Rouge who maintain a presence in the hill country to the south and north
of the province and have refused to disarm their troops.
Earlier this month, the Khmer Rouge reiterated their position that UNTAC should strengthen
the role of the Supreme National Council and also rid the country of the Vietnamese
soldiers they claim are still on Cambodian soil.
Despite repeated assurances from UNTAC-and the lack of evidence of occupying troops-their
views on the Vietnamese presence are gaining credence from more and more Cambodians
who are beginning to fear their independence is at stake.
"We take the claims extremely seriously," said a senior UNTAC official
in Phnom Penh. "And we are taking measures so that we will be in a position
to state categorically that this is not the case."
CPP, for its part, dismisses the allegations and instead has hung its banner on the
fact that the government overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and has ushered Cambodia
into the first peaceful period it has had in 15 years. Furthermore, CPP criticizes
the other parties for starting their electioneering early.
"These parties have no support," said Tep Mean, permanent member of the
province at the CPP. "They are trying to start the election campaigning before
it has been officially commenced, so obviously there are problems."
For the people of KOMPONG Speu avoiding political harassment is only half the battle.
Critics charge that the CCP has many avenues it can use to influence an election.
"They have all sorts of tricks," said another party official.
Whether those tricks will see the SOC back into power is another question. But with
the Khmer Rouge as the other stark option and with FUNCINPEC and Redek starved of
funds and frightened, Cambodia's mired politics seems unlikely to end for a considerable
period of time.
"Sometimes I get very frightened," said Loom Sip Ha. "I fear for my
life, but I must be brave to carry out my task."