PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) - Attacks on U.N. peacekeepers trying to steer the country
to elections have this capital's war-weary residents on edge.
The big fear is that the communist Khmer Rouge, blamed for most of the attacks, will
return to Phnom Penh, where it once held sway during a radical regime in which hundreds
of thousands of Cambodians died.
Large crowds are jamming government offices for passports and residents are stocking
up on food. Foreign tourists and businessmen, who had begun filtering back after
the U.N. mission arrived, have also grown wary.
"People are afraid the Khmer Rouge will come back to Phnom Penh," said
Mrs. Boon Nareth, who was waiting at the foreign ministry to apply for passports
for her children. She already has her passport.
The capital was seen as a refuge from the turmoil of nearly 13 years of civil war,
which ended with a 1991 peace treaty that called for U.N. supervised elections and
demilitarization of Cambodia's four factions.
But the Khmer Rouge is boycotting the May 23-28 elections and is apparently trying
to sabotage the vote with series of attacks on election volunteers.
Fifty-six members of the U.N. mission have been killed or injured in attacks over
the past year, including 10 dead and 30 injured since late March.
The Khmer Rouge is suspected in most attacks, but it denies responsibility.
Japan asked the United Nations on Monday to transfer its Cambodia personnel to safer
areas, after a Japanese policeman was killed two weeks ago in Northwestern Cambodia.
As the violence grows, so has the tension in the capital.
University student Chim Guanghui said his family has been stocking up rice and other
items in case roads to Phnom Penh are cut off. "Most people feel the situation
is very uncertain, that there might be another civil war," he said.
While some say violent robberies may have increased, the tree-lined boulevards of
this beautiful riverside city remain relatively safe, and much of the country is
nearing peace, not war.
"The rumors are crazier than ever and of course some people have become worried,"
said U.N. spokesman Eric Falt. "The security situation has deteriorated in certain
parts of the country but the electoral campaigning continues very peacefully".
But Cambodians assume the worst when they hear of attacks. That is because for the
past two decades, most people have experienced the worst.
When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 after a five-year civil war, it immediately
drove many Phnom Penh residents and refugees into vast communes in the countryside.
An estimated 1.5 million died from disease, slave labor and executions until Vietnamese
forces drove out the Khmer Rouge in early 1979.
During the ensuing war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-installed government,
Phnom Penh was virtually untouched. But many Cambodians fear the Khmer Rouge could
try to seize power again.
A grenade tossed into a Vietnamese-owned sidewalk cafe, just a few blocks from the
U.N. headquarters in Phnom Penh, killed two people in late March, prompting many
ethnic Vietnamese to flee to Vietnam.
The attack, blamed on the Khmer Rouge, was the city's first significant politically
motivated violence since the U.N. force arrived about a year ago.
Since then, rice prices have risen sharply and the currency, the Riel, has fallen
as many people convert their money into gold. The U.N. mission dumped rice on the
market to lower the price.
At the central market, vendors said customers were stocking up on dried fish, instant
noodles and canned sardines,
The Japanese tour groups and western backpackers who once toured the city are nowhere
in sight. At the French colonial-style Renakse Hotel, the guests are mainly U.N.
officials or journalists.
"All the other hotels in town are in the same situation," said acting manager
Kim Heng Chhan. "Even if we lowered the prices we wouldn't get more guests."
Occupancy has been 62 percent at the 280-room deluxe Cambodiana Hotel in recent days,
compared with 92 percent at this time last year, said general manager Guy Lucas.
He said all tour groups for May and June were canceled.
Foreign businessmen, many of whom have been waiting until the elections are over
before investing, are also worried.
Sam Oum, a Cambodian-American who returned from Long Beach, California, to run restaurants
and mini-markets in the city, said business has dropped 25 percent since the cafe
Oum already avoids bars and other potential troublespots. During the election he
will send his two daughters abroad, shutter his shop during business hours and close
"Everyone in town is afraid, to a certain degree," Oum said at McSam's,
his U.S. style hamburger joint. "I never thought the Khmer Rouge would attack