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Exiles vow no return yet

Exiles vow no return yet

C AMBODIAN opposition figures in Bangkok have rejected Ung Huot's election

as Prime Minister as illegal.

"The appointment...by the National Assembly, in an atmosphere of intimidation

and fear, of Mr Ung Huot as 'First Prime Minister' is totally illegal and can mislead

only people who do not pay any attention at all to the rule of law," Khmer Nation

Party leader Sam Rainsy said in a statement from the Thai capital, Bangkok.

The statement was issued in the name of the Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD), a

movement formed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh's Funcinpec loyalists and three other

parties including the KNP and part of the divided Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party

(BLDP).

Dozens of opposition politicians, journalists and government officials, and at least

14 MPs, who fled Cambodia after the July 5-6 power grab by Second Prime Minister

Hun Sen.

Many of them are in Bangkok, where the UCD members have rejected Hun Sen's appeals

to return to Phnom Penh.

Funcinpec MP Ahmad Yahya said UCD members had decided not to return to Phnom Penh

individually. Any return would be en masse, and would have to include the party leaders

being permitted to return "with guarantees of their safety from Hun Sen".

Sam Rainsy said that, even with the safety guarantees publicly given by Hun Sen in

recent days, was not enough to convince opposition figures to return.

"Personal guarantees of safety is just one element of the whole picture,"

Rainsy said. "Safety is fine, but what can we do in Cambodia? Can we do our

jobs?

"If we cannot voice our opinions and prepare the [1998] elections to be free

and fair, we will just provide an endorsement of Hun Sen."

The UCD members' claimed fear of intimidation and inability to work properly if they

returned to Cambodia were supported last week by a delegation from two United States

democracy groups which visited Phnom Penh.

"Cambodia is not a functioning democracy, it does not function under the rule

of law," said delegation leader Tom Andrews, senior advisor to the National

Democratic Institute (NDI).

Andrews led a joint NDI-International Republican Institute (IRI) team to Phnom Penh

to meet with Ung Huot, MPs, aid workers and remaining opposition leaders.

Both NDI and IRI are providing support and funds for opposition figures in Bangkok.

"We are working with the UCD, just as we were working with opposition political

groups when they were inside Phnom Penh," said Jeff Crouse, IRI's Regional Director

for Asia, speaking from Thailand.

Tom Andrews said from Bangkok that NDI and IRI are jointly conducting training on

strategy development, working with opposition leaders to define UCD's message, and

helping them set up offices.

Crouse said it was difficult to estimate the number of journalists, MPs, party members

and their families staying in Bangkok, but noted that the American groups are paying

for costs incurred by the opposition figures on an as-needed basis.

"We think it's very important that people not feel that they're going to be

forced to return to Cambodia for financial reasons. So we're helping them out there,"

said Crouse. He was unable to identify the specific costs that IRI or NDI have covered

to date, but denied that hotel bills were being paid by his organization.

The IRI is the international arm of the American Republican political party, and

the NDI that of the Democratic party. Funding comes from the National Endowment for

Democracy (NED), a private political organization of which IRI and NDI are two separate

components. The NED receives direct funding from the US Congress, but is not under

control of the State Department and thus has not been affected by the US aid freeze.

Earlier, the IRI and NDI had both worked with Cambodian government and opposition

parties for several years. IRI's then-Country Director, Ron Abney, was injured in

a March 30 grenade attack on a Khmer Nation Party rally in Phnom Penh. After the

July battles, the IRI's head office in Washington evacuated all Khmer IRI staff and

their families to Thailand. The NDI office is still functioning in Phnom Penh, although

Andrews is currently on an "assessment mission" to determine NDI's future

direction.

"IRI and NDI are both firmly committed to remain engaged in Cambodia to do whatever

we can to be effective with the forces for democracy," Crouse emphasized. But

as long as the UCD remains fearful of a return home, IRI and NDI may have to settle

for being engaged and effective in Bangkok.

"We will make the decision to come back to Phnom Penh when we see we can do

something there to move democratic processes forward," said Crouse, adding,

"But I don't know what we'd do if UCD wasn't there."

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