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An Iron Fist, Not a Soft Touch, Wins in Cambodia

Democracy takes a back seat as the world accepts the ex-communist Hun Sen a month after his power grab

Perhaps the most basic political freedom is the opportunity to promote the party or candidate you like - say, on your bumper, lawn, or lapel.

Here in Cambodia, four years after the UN spent more than $2 billion in the name of democracy, farmer Sim Peng has found that the basics aren't so simple.

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A month ago, four soldiers climbed the steps to his house at 10 p.m., saying they were searching for illegal weapons. "They didn't even take off their shoes," says Mr. Peng, whose wooden home sits on 6-foot stilts that keep the house dry during seasonal floods. The soldiers found no guns, but left with an order: Take down that sign.

Years ago, Peng put up a placard outside his house in support of one of Cambodia's two main political parties. But there was no debating the soldiers' command. "Ordinary people in this village must listen to what they say," the farmer observes. And what they said, he adds, was this: "You had better focus on the CPP."

Peng's sign, needless to say, did not bear the name of the Cambodian People's Party. He took it down the next day.

These days concepts like freedom of political expression aren't too important in Cambodia, where the top UN representative worries about an "atmosphere of fear." What is paramount - especially in the eyes of the CPP and its leader Hun Sen - is stability, efficiency, and control.

This triumph of expediency over democracy may lead to even more conflict in this troubled country.

The world watches

In Bangkok and on the Thai-Cambodian border, politicians in self-imposed exile are contemplating a return to civil war, although CPP troops have so far overwhelmed opposition forces in sporadic fighting in the northwestern part of the country. In the meantime the exiles, as well as many believers in Western-style democracy who remain in the country, are wondering why the world isn't more concerned about what is happening in Cambodia.

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The international community's attempt to bring peace and democracy to this Southeast Asian nation of 10 million people, highlighted by an accord among Cambodian factions reached in 1991 and UN-backed elections in 1993, was also a way for some countries to clear their consciences. There is a lot to atone for: The French colonized Cambodia until 1953, the Americans began bombing the country in 1969 and partially invaded in 1970, and from 1975 until 1979 Cambodia's Khmer Rouge radicals implemented Chinese-style communism with an epic disregard for human life. As the 1970s ended, Vietnam swept in and stayed until 1989.

In recent weeks, CPP leader Hun Sen, a chess-playing former Khmer Rouge commander, has emerged from a burst of violence as the country's unconquerable political figure. Officially "second prime minister" under a power-sharing agreement, he has effectively regained the position he first took on in 1985: sole premier.

In the 1980s, Hun Sen and his Vietnamese-backed government were isolated. Now, aside from some objections from Washington, the international community seems to be acquiescing to the reemergence of authoritarian rule in Cambodia, apparently in the hope that it will become the kind of benevolently capitalist and faintly democratic state found in many parts of East and Southeast Asia.

'Don't ask us to believe....'

"The whole exercise of the [1991 peace] accord - to give power to the people - is being distorted," says Son Soubert, a soft-spoken, onetime archaeologist who is one of two vice presidents of the national legislature, although he is now in self-imposed exile in Bangkok. "If the international community supports this kind of person," he says of Hun Sen, "then I can't understand it. Don't ask us to believe in democracy. Don't ask us to believe in human rights anymore."

Most Cambodians are still trying to assess the impact of July 5 and 6, two fateful days of fighting in and around the capital between forces under Hun Sen's command and those loyal to his chief rival and partner in government, First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Hun Sen won, and Prince Ranariddh is out of the country - that much is clear.

But it remains unclear whether Hun Sen initiated a coup to rid himself of Ranariddh, or whether the violence was the inevitable eruption of tension that had been building for months, if not years. The UN's representative, Lakhan Mehrotra, says he is unsure whether "the intent to use force was present on only one side or on both sides."

For many observers here, it is also uncertain just how objectionable it is to have Hun Sen and the CPP more exclusively in control of the government. One foreign human rights worker here, who is now investigating alleged political executions that have occurred since early July, seems resigned to a political future for Cambodia that does not match the "building democracy" rhetoric of the early 1990s.

"My best hope is for the right personalities to govern this country, not so much for real democratic processes," he says on condition of anonymity. "There are some good elements in the CPP who need to be encouraged to reform the party within."

The 1993 election was won by Ranariddh's party, but Hun Sen's subsequent threats to divide the country led to a coalition that involved the two men sharing the prime minister's job and their parties co-administering key ministries.

The arrangement has been cumbersome and divisive, and many diplomats and international development workers have long sought out CPP officials and politicians, whom they see as more efficient and more honest than those from Ranariddh's party.

"They were very happy to work with the CPP," says a Western-trained Cambodian political analyst who asked for anonymity, referring to the foreign governments that provide massive amounts of aid here. That happiness seems likely to continue, since only the US and Australia have cut or suspended aid, and they are not the biggest donors.

Although many businesses, some backed by foreign investors, were looted or burned during the July disturbances, the outcome of Hun Sen's consolidation of power may improve the climate for economic enterprise. "What is much needed by foreign investors is political stability and a policy of non-nationalization," Hun Sen said recently in an interview broadcast on a CPP TV station. He says he has been receiving and approving proposals for investment projects.

Diplomats and Cambodian analysts in Phnom Penh agree that the CPP may not do well in scheduled national elections that Hun Sen has promised to hold next May. At the same time, they say both he and the party are unlikely to relinquish control of key elements of the security forces.

Officials from the US, Southeast Asian nations, and other countries are trying to ensure that opposition leaders feel safe enough to return home to campaign and that opposition media outlets can resume the vociferous criticism of leaders that they practiced until the July fighting. Hun Sen has offered guarantees of safety, invited the press to revive itself, and backed a replacement candidate from Ranariddh's party who was elected first prime minister by the National Assembly on Aug. 6.

Money can't buy CPP love

The type of leadership that an empowered Hun Sen might offer is on display in the village where farmer Peng lives. Kraing Yauv, more than an hour's drive south of the capital, is the site of a Hun Sen Development Center.

On the way, a visitor passes more than a dozen facilities named for the CPP leader: schools, bridges, roads, temples, agricultural zones. At the center, pictures of Hun Sen adorn the wall in the place where many Cambodians hang pictures of their monarch, King Sihanouk, who is Ranariddh's father. Hun Sen's name even appears on a drum he provided to a local Buddhist monastery.

By most accounts, the center has done much to help the people of Kraing Yauv grow more rice, get their goods to market, and receive an education. But as Peng's sign demonstrates, one thing that does not flourish here is political pluralism.

In this village, the farmer adds, those who listen to the Voice of America's Khmer language news broadcasts, a rare source of independent news, keep the volume low or use an earphone to avoid trouble with the CPP.

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