FIVE years have passed since Cambodia's last election and since Hong Sreng was murdered
in front of his family.
Although they are still too terrified to speak about the circumstances surrounding
his death, the impending 1998 polls bring back terrible memories for the Kampong
"I'm so afraid," whispered widow Leam Ly Mich, 54. "Since my husband
was killed, when I hear about the parties and politics, I'm frightened."
Although his family denied any knowledge of Hong Sreng's political leanings - "Oh,
we are women, we don't know about men's affairs," insisted daughter 29-year-old
Pan Chheang Leang - local Funcinpec officials assert that Hong Sreng was a dynamic
"He was an active member, very strong, very visible," said Trong Rong district
party chief Nhet Sarin. "He always told people, 'We have to vote for Funcinpec,
we have to eliminate the communist regime.' He collected a lot of members."
Party officials claim that Sreng's activism was his death warrant. In January 1993,
three men - "they may have been local military," reckons Nhet Sarin - pushed
their way into the house, stole some things and dragged Sreng downstairs.
"They tied him to the house column. They shot him three times and then they
went away," said daughter Leang. "I was there. My mother was there. There
were more than six people in the house."
Political violence is a vivid memory for most veterans of the run-up to the 1993
polls, although, unlike Sreng's case, much of it was perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.
The human rights component of UNTAC said there were 200 "politically motivated"
deaths with identifiable culprits over a ten-week period before the 1993 elections.
The Khmer Rouge was deemed responsible for 131.
One UN volunteer in the troubled Bavel district of Battambang - between the KR strongholds
of Pailin and Phnom Malai - said the violence was so bad it drove him away.
"This time five years ago, I was thinking if I was going to leave the country
or not," said the former UNTAC observer, now an aid worker here, adding he was
particularly shaken by the KR murders of a UN volunteer and his interpreter in Kampong
He said he feared that the process couldn't work because of the continuing war, and
ended up resigning his position five days before elections. "I was thinking,
'I'm not going to put my life on the line for something I have serious doubts about.'"
Chea Vannath, now acting president of the Center for Social Development, remembers
her fear of the Khmer Rouge vividly from her days as an UNTAC translator.
"We were in Thmar Pouk, it was too dangerous to sleep there so we went to Aranyapathet
[Thailand]. We had two [carloads of] armed escorts front and back," she said.
She recalled that a tire blowout prompted the jittery escort to leap out of their
vehicles and point their guns at the empty forest.
Despite the recent KR attack on an elections convoy that killed two and wounded five
more, the improved security situation in the country is one marked difference between
1993's campaign and 1998's.
Vannath also noted the major input of NGOs, especially local ones, in these elections.
"There is a big, big difference in terms of NGO involvement," she said.
"It seems like NGOs are UNTAC's replacement."
The empowerment of a country and its people - such as Vannath's progress from interpreter
for foreign election organizers to president of an NGO producing election material
- is undoubtedly a positive feature of the Cambodian-run 1998 elections.
However, some UNTAC achievements look better in retrospect, such as media access.
UNTAC radio and TV ensured equal access for all parties, while election watchdogs
have complained repeatedly and bitterly that the ruling CPP has monopolized the airwaves
Countering that, some diplomats in Phnom Penh think that Khmer-language Voice of
America and Radio Free Asia are as much opposition mouthpieces as local stations
are for the CPP.
"There are some signs that one party has dominated the campaign" more than
any did in the run-up to the 1993 election, said UN rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg.
But, he added, "human rights have been more on the agenda this year than the
last time, which is positive."
Bit Seanglim, president of the Free Republican Party, agreed. "A week before
the election last time, we knew we were going to lose," the two-time candidate
said. "I was running in the provinces, in Kampong Cham. There were threats,
party members were beaten up, candidates were killed... Now I am running in Phnom
Penh and the level of intimidation is much lower than in 1993."
Conversely, Son Sann Party member Kem Sokha said his party found the campaign more
difficult now, but he cited technical, not human rights, reasons.
"Now we have a short time to campaign," he said, noting he is much busier
now than he was in 1993. "The time is short, the NEC is not so clear, some information
is very slow."
Another big change is the composition of his party, which emerged as a power broker
after the 1993 elections but has suffered two splits since. But Sokha claimed: "We
have more members since 1993, we don't worry about the split."
A casual look at the 1993 pre-election issues of the Post tells much about the differences
between now and then:
- "KR slay Bulgarian hosts of peace dinner";
- "Bangladeshi killed in mortar attack";
- "UNVs fear for their lives";
- "Funcinpec goes on the air";
- "UNTAC bubble economy about to burst",
and the similarities:
- "[Rainsy] used [the word yuon] repeatedly, insistently, emphatically, and
with some degree of venom";
- "Ranariddh underscored the fact that Funcinpec was founded by his father...
and that the party had remained steadfastly 'Sihanoukist'."
One other story catches the eye - "Hun Sen predicts landslide victory".
"The difference between 1993 and now is we were overconfident then, we didn't
think we had to do anything," admitted senior CPP official Khieu Kanharith.
Indeed, many observers were as surprised as the CPP when the party lost. "Now
we must campaign very hard," Kanharith added.
The eventual 1993 results were 58 seats for Funcinpec, 51 for the CPP, 10 for the
Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party and one for Molinaka.
Will history repeat itself?
Hong Sreng's widow said she has a voter registration card "because the village
chief made me go". She has moved to a new village since her husband's murder
but is still too afraid to dare say who she will vote for.
"She is frightened now. I keep far away from her," said Funcinpec commune
chief Van Sophorn. But, he added: "Her son-in-law tells me she still supports