PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Nearly five months after Cambodia lost the democracy that the international community had bought for this hapless land, Prime Minister Hun Sen's campaign to gain legitimacy for his regime is hitting a stone wall.
The United Nations has kept Cambodia's seat vacant. The United States and most donors have suspended non-humanitarian aid. The World Bank won't even talk about new projects. Even the nonconfrontational Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations is giving Cambodia the cold shoulder, having put its pending membership on hold.
And slowly Cambodia, whose people have a history of destroying what they have built, from the temples of Angkor Wat to the pillars of democracy, is facing up to a sobering reality: Hun Sen's July coup, an affair staged in the name of personal power, not national issues, has cost the country dearly. It has turned Cambodia into the orphan of Indochina, just four years after a $3-billion U.N. effort to rehabilitate the country, culminating in free elections, was deemed by everyone to have been a stunning success.
"If I was not a Buddhist, I would commit suicide, because the end of my life is full of shame, humiliation and despair over the national order," an ailing King Norodom Sihanouk, 75, said in October.
"In a blossoming Asia . . . we are the only oasis of war, insecurity, self-destruction, poverty, social injustice, arch-corruption, lawlessness, national division, totalitarianism, drug trafficking and AIDS."
Although Sihanouk's comments contain some hyperbole, they do reflect the despair many Cambodians feel at seeing the tourist industry collapse, foreign investment evaporate, expatriates flee and human life--in an eerie echo of the horrific rule of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 to 1979--again treated with contempt.
"The international community purchased our freedom and our human rights with $3 billion and no small amount of blood, and we Cambodians can't maintain what we have been given?" asked Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. "And if we can't, do we even deserve our sovereignty?"
Clearly these are distressing times in Phnom Penh. The capital, a once-charming city, is raggedy and trash-littered, and along the wide, tree-lined boulevards people walk with a shuffle, their shoulders slumped, casting a leery eye toward strangers who might be armed.
There are so many guns about that some businesses have posted signs by the door saying, "Please Check Your Weapons." No sensible visitor ventures from his or her hotel on foot at night, and the U.S. Embassy has set up a hotline with recorded messages that give updated information on security trouble spots. Most crime--unlike the spate of political killings that followed the coup--is the work of robbers with no agenda other than the need for money.
Towering over the crime-ridden streets, on giant posters attached to the sides of government buildings, is the face of Sihanouk, appearing youngish and healthy. It is a symbol that calms Cambodians, but it is an illusionary one. The king, ailing with cancer, spends most of his time in Beijing these days, returning to Cambodia only to speak of his dismay and to issue contradictory political statements.
"Cambodians thought they'd turned the corner after the  elections, and now they're back to square one," said a European diplomat. "It's really deflated them. They've been kicked around by so many people for so long--the French, the Americans, the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese--you get the feeling that they've just accepted that their lot in life is to be defeated."
For Washington, which has come down hard on the Hun Sen regime, Cambodia's coup was particularly dispiriting. The Americans had looked on Cambodia as the one place where they could salvage something worthwhile from their Indochina misadventure. Here the U.S. saw itself building the foundation of peace, democracy and a free press in a region characterized by authoritarian Communist rule.
"Cambodia was our salve, a place we could feel good about what had happened," said one American resident. "Then the coup. It was like tearing open the Indochina scab and putting salt in the wound. It was another failure, and it hurt."
But the international community, having been stung once, is about to try again. Various donor nations have pledged $20 million to help underwrite new elections, which Hun Sen says will be held next year. This time the prime minister--who gloated after the coup, "Now I am the captain alone"--may face no viable opposition.
The man Hun Sen toppled was his co-prime minister in the coalition government, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, 53, son of the king. Ranariddh escaped to Thailand with 14 members of parliament July 4, the day before fighting started in Phnom Penh, and has since been charged by Hun Sen's government with smuggling arms and carrying out illegal troop movements while in power. He is scheduled to be tried in absentia.