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Cambodia's Long, Tough Road Home

For Cambodians, battle to recover sense of trust may be hardest of all

TWO decades of political anarchy in Cambodia have left Kol, the gaunt chief of this village near the capital of Phnom Penh, cynical and distrustful of election talk.

"Everybody lies about this new government," says the villager, who admits to not knowing what voting means.

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Still, when polling time rolls around next year, Kol says, he will back anyone if only to keep out the Khmer Rouge, fanatic Marxists blamed with the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians in the 1970s.

"The people here won't like a government from the Khmer Rouge," he says. "I will like the party that will give Cambodia independence and peace." (The three rebel groups and the Phnom Penh government signed an agreement Oct. 23, 1991, to end more than 20 years of civil war.)

Thrust into a difficult political transition by the peace accord, Cambodians struggle to free their country from a cycle of tragedy.

Since 1970, Cambodia has been ravaged by a progression of United States bombing during the Vietnam war, revolution, genocide, and civil war. Now, with massive United Nations backing, analysts say, this country of 8.5 million people confronts an uphill and lengthy task of rebuilding and holding together.

"Political will among the Cambodians is a must for national reconciliation," UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said after a recent visit to Cambodia.

Yet diplomats, UN officials, international aid workers, and even Cambodian commentators wonder if the devastated country has what it takes.

* Infrastructure has been destroyed in many parts of the country; in some areas it is nonexistent.

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* Services such as education, medical care, and sanitation have collapsed in the countryside.

* Government workers often are not paid, and corrupt officials thrive in the political vacuum.

* Millions of trained and skilled Cambodians were killed or fled overseas during the murderous Khmer Rouge rule, creating a human deficit not easily filled.

* A generation of Cambodians who have never known peace remains suspicious and consumed by self-interest and will have trouble pulling together, Cambodian observers say.

"The community has lost so much of its soul and spirit that people cannot rely on each other," says Sochua Mu Leiper, head of Khemara, a Cambodian nongovernment organization.

"The people now are so cruel," she adds. "They are only thinking about themselves. They can't think about tomorrow. They can only think about today."

In such a milieu, creating a neutral political environment for elections is difficult at best, diplomats and Western observers say. Under the international settlement, the UN will set up and monitor elections for mid-1993.

But Cambodian politics remains in flux, clouded by factional tensions, intrigue, and manipulation. Already the factional divide is taking on geographic dimensions as the political groups try to lure Cambodians to live in their strongholds in central and western Cambodia and even use intimidation against returning refugees, diplomats and UN officials say.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the hereditary monarch and recently reinstated chief of state, remains the country's best-known leader, although his popularity and influence is largely limited to older Cambodians.

"I'm glad that Sihanouk came back, especially for the old people," says Kol, the village head, referring to the prince's return to the country last November after 13 years in exile. "The people over 20 know Sihanouk, but the others don't, because Sihanouk stayed in other countries for a long, long time."

Few observers expect even the personable Sihanouk to bring rapid change.

"I don't think anybody really expects Jeffersonian democracy in Cambodia," says a Western diplomat. "This is an Asian society that will be impossible to change overnight."

A Khmer Rouge return to power remains many Cambodians' worst nightmare. Although many believe that the attempted lynching of Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan upon his return to the country last November and related demonstrations in December were fueled by government officials, the violence drew out the repressed rage of many who suffered under the radical Marxist guerrillas, Western and Cambodian analysts say.

Still, the Khmer Rouge nurture a long-term plan to regain Phnom Penh, first by sharing power with the other factions in a new parliament and then slowly rebuilding the group's credibility among the neglected rural poor.

Although the notorious Pol Pot remains in control, the political strategy increasingly is the handiwork of younger more sophisticated cadres educated during the recent years in international diplomacy and enriched by a thriving cross-border trade in timber, gems, and weapons.

The appeal already is starting to pay off, observers say, as the guerrillas have struck a chord with strident anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, condemnation of official corruption, and food and assistance programs in villages.

"The Khmer Rouge problem has become more complicated," says a European diplomat in Phnom Penh. "There are a lot of young, educated Khmer Rouge who have nothing in common with the 'Killing Fields.' "

"They have made a lot of money in the camps and the weapons trade," he adds. "They are ready to wash their money and participate in the political process."

Many analysts consider Hun Sen, the Vietnamese-installed prime minister in Phnom Penh, a frontrunner in an election, commanding the administration, police, and most of Cambodia's territory.

But the young leader's political fortunes have slid amid bitter infighting with a hard-line Phnom Penh faction headed by President Chea Sim. In recent months, the feud has triggered the killing of a Cambodian government officer and assassination attempts against a leading dissident and others linked to Hun Sen.

The incidents have succeeded in stifling dissent and disillusioning intellectuals loyal to the prime minister and could precipitate a post-election split between Hun Sen and Chea Sim, Western and Asian observers say.

More ominous, observers say, is lawlessness in the countryside as marauding demobilized soldiers threaten to unravel the peace accord.

Phoung, a militiaman near the southern port of Kompong Som, admits that he was forced to turn to occasional banditry when his government rice quota was cut off five months ago.

"The authorities have committed mistakes," he says. "They had better be careful when there are elections."

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