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Cambodia's War Puts Democracy, Refugees on Run

Cambodia erupts in fighting after a former communist, Hun Sen, ousts an elected partner. Thousands flee. Most nations, except the United States, take a hands-off attitude

When elephants fight, ants get crushed, says an ancient Khmer proverb.

Two weeks after a power grab by Cambodia's "second" prime minister, Hun Sen, dozens of his opponents have been killed, and thousands of peasants are fleeing. And the world is watching to see if fighting in the north will escalate.

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Scenes of refugees on the run are a familiar sight in this war-torn Southeast Asian nation: the US bombing in 1973, a Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, and Vietnam's invasion in 1979 all displaced people en masse.

Now the former communist party, led by Hun Sen and other former Khmer Rouge fighters, has ousted the "first" prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and many of his allies.

The coup, as many call it, brings an end to an awkward power-sharing arrangement that Hun Sen forced on the United Nations in 1993 after it sponsored elections (which Hun Sen's party lost).

The prince, who has fled abroad, is trying to garner international support for his return. Only the United States seems willing to oppose Hun Sen and has sent a special envoy to seek a solution.

But next Monday, Hun Sen plans to consolidate his power by pushing the National Assembly to rubber-stamp his choice for a new second prime minister, thus keeping up a fiction of democracy.

Cambodia's new strongman is no stranger to controversy. He was called a "Vietnamese puppet" during his 1985-92 rule during Vietnam's occupation. What ultimately set him against Ranariddh was the latter's attempt to woo factions of the Khmer Rouge, whose ailing leader Pol Pot appears spent and whose dwindling guerrilla force has split into factions in the jungle. The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979.

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