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Cambodia Tense as U.N.-Assisted Election Nears

May 20, 1993|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 1,400 international poll observers have arrived to take up positions around the country for the voting. Most polling stations will have an unarmed civilian police officer on guard, but only a third are likely to get full-time military protection. Last week, the United States donated 6,500 flak jackets and 10,000 steel helmets to the United Nations for distribution to poll watchers, a gift that appeared to be as worrisome as it was reassuring.

Most diplomats who have followed the election process doubt that any of the 20 parties will win an absolute majority. But the likely winners are the Phnom Penh administration's People's Party and the party founded by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, which is generally known by its French initials, FUNCINPEC, which stands for the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia.

The People's Party, which was installed in power as a Communist party by Vietnam in 1979, controls the government administration and commands the loyalty of the country's civil service, army and police forces. It also enjoys a virtual monopoly of the electronic media to deliver its message: Only the Phnom Penh administration can save the country from the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge.

FUNCINPEC is now headed by Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a French-trained lawyer. Some analysts expect it to win a large vote because of voter loyalty to Sihanouk, whom many revere as a semi-god; in addition, they see a large protest vote against the administration, which has been denounced as corrupt and close to Vietnam. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, ousting the Khmer Rouge regime in January, 1979, and staying for more than 10 years.

FUNCINPEC is campaigning on a promise to set up a government of national reconciliation that includes all parties, including the Khmer Rouge, which it sees as the only way to end Cambodia's long civil war.

Sihanouk, who was deposed as Cambodia's leader in 1970, had initially sought to have himself elected president at the same time as the legislative elections, but the Khmer Rouge warned him to stay out of the process, and he has remained secluded at his home-in-exile in China. In a gloomy pre-election message from Beijing this week, he said, "Cambodia is divided into feudal fiefdoms and split to the degree that a return to national unity will be impossible."

Because the Phnom Penh regime apparently views FUNCINPEC as its nearest rival, intimidation against the party has been the heaviest. Five FUNCINPEC officials have been killed in Kompong Cham in recent months, and three others have been wounded.

"The people are afraid," said Nuon Ninara, FUNCINPEC leader in Kompong Cham. "The Phnom Penh government doesn't intimidate publicly. They do it secretly."

According to UNTAC, there have been 180 killings in the last two months, of which about 120 have been blamed on the Khmer Rouge. Of the remaining 60, the Phnom Penh government is suspected of most but has been clearly identified in only 10.

"The political violence and intimidation has continued at an unacceptably high level in recent weeks, and we've told the parties this constantly," said Dennis McNamara, head of UNTAC's human rights component. "But we also say it is not unmanageable in the sense that it is a bar to the electoral process."

In an effort to control the violence, UNTAC set up a special prosecutor's office to try cases involving human rights violations. But Cambodians could reach no consensus about which courts should have jurisdiction, and the arrests have stopped.

In addition, two supporters of the People's Party have been struck off voter rolls as punishment for illegal campaign activities.

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