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...while everyone wonders: how far can you go?

...while everyone wonders: how far can you go?

FIVE months after July's bloody street battles in Phnom Penh, the last of the politicians

who fled Cambodia are poised to return home. But they, and many political observers,

are still pondering the big question: how far do Cambodia's post-coup political freedoms

extend?

"An atmosphere of fear and intimidation still exists... we feel very, very unsafe

in Cambodia," said Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD) advance team member Pen

Dareth, alleging that some party members who met with him had been followed.

Yet, as the last team member to depart, the Khmer Neutral Party official said he

would recommend to the leadership of the UCD - the exiles' coalition - that everyone

should return to Cambodia before January 15.

He said he would suggest several conditions for the return, including a ceasefire,

equal media access, and up to 3,000 foreign election monitors.

Freedom to campaign in the next election is a crucial issue, with donor support needed

and international legitimacy riding on a fair result.

One returning politician asserted that returning and participating in the election

will not be a problem, but an aggressive campaign against the CPP could spark retaliatory

violence.

"So far we enjoy the artificial freedom - as long as we don't become a threat

to the party in power we're okay," said newly-anointed Khmer Nation Party (KNP)

member Son Chhay.

However, KNP president and UCD member Sam Rainsy has held a prayer service, a peace

march, a provincial campaign trip and a party congress in the last three weeks without

any reported intimidation.

Son Chhay said he does not know how far the KNP can go, but the party will continue

to stage public events.

"We want to test the ground....We come back, take some risks, and hope that

because of these risks, people in power will learn from this," he said.

Senior US diplomat John Shattuck cited Rainsy's activities as "positive developments"

at a Dec 8 press conference in Phnom Penh. He said that while the Cambodian government

had assured him political freedoms would be ensured, "the US will watch closely

to see that those promises are implemented .... the proof is in the details."

Funcinpec steering committee member and advance team spokesman May Sam Oeun said

party followers were still fearful. "They don't believe they will be safe."

However, he said the team had been assured by a Ministry of Interior general that

opposition politicians would be able to exercise reasonable political freedoms.

"We asked what does this mean, and the general answered that we should not say

anything that would make us look uneducated."

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said: "It is the right of the technical

advance team to say what is the political atmosphere, but it is very early to conclude

that in Cambodia there is not a neutral atmosphere... we're trying to guarantee the

neutral and good atmosphere."

But not all observers are convinced. Continuing impunity for perpetrators of political

violence is a major factor in Cambodia's political climate, analysts asserted.

"Political freedom is still questionable as long as March 30 remains uninvestigated,"

said a diplomatic source, referring to the deadly grenade attack on a KNP rally earlier

this year.

Both Shattuck and UN human rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg criticized the government

for failing to move against suspects both for the grenade attack and on the UN-documented

political executions since July.

Another concern is equal media access for opposition parties. Information Secretary

of State Khieu Kanharith said political parties are free to set up radio stations

because they are not subject to government control.

Television, however, is a different matter. "If all the parties have a right

to have their own station, we would have over 30 stations. It's impossible,"

he said, adding that the to-be-formed National Election Commission will supervise

television access during the campaign.

However, observers noted that fair TV access is far from guaranteed, considering

that state-run Apsara TV airs extensive Hun Sen coverage and its compound hosts most

large CPP events.

Kanharith countered that Apsara was not a CPP station, but Pen Dareth remained unconvinced.

"I'm sorry to say that state media just serve only one political party,"

Pen Dareth said.

Returning politicians may also come back with their party coffers near empty, as

well as their party structures fractured. These obstacles could put them at a severe

disadvantage against the well-organized Cambodian People's Party, Pen Dareth lamented.

"The CPP and other parties inside have been preparing [for elections] a long

time already," he said. "We will come back and have nothing - no office,

no equipment."

But even a rich party, analysts agree, still would have to contend with the problem

of political intimidation, especially outside of Phnom Penh.

"[Candidates] have political freedoms until they try to use them," said

a diplomatic source. "The real issue is the provinces, where people are unwilling

to stand up and be counted."

Pen Dareth agreed that provincial loyalists were especially frightened. "There

is psychological intimidation in the countryside. If people say something...or criticize,

even not too loudly, they are recorded and questioned by authorities," he said,

adding that people are being told they won't be safe unless they join the CPP.

Even the CPP's allies are reporting political hassles in the provinces. Khmer Citizens

Party president Ngoun Soeur wrote a Dec 9 letter to Takeo provincial governor Sou

Phirin, a CPP official, detailing alleged threats by commune and district officials

to KCP members.

In the letter, Soeur protested the intimidation, noting: "KCP political activities

are not illegal and moreover KCP has aligned with [the] ruling CPP."

Still, the exiles' advance team is urging the return of all opposition figures because

"you have to contribute from the inside... if you want change, you must do it

yourself," Pen Dareth said. "And as Cambodians, it is home sweet home."

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