Cambodia's 'beginning of peace' is a tenuous hope


PHNOM PENH -- Optimism flows easily here these days.

The long-running civil war has ended, at least on paper. The exiled god-king, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, whose ouster in 1970 marked the start of all the trouble, is back in the fairy-tale Royal Palace on the banks of the Mekong river. And the largest, most expensive peacekeeping operation in the history of the United Nations has taken over the town, transforming it from a dazed and desolate shell of a city into a kind of madhouse.

White U.N. vehicles dominate the now-bustling traffic, and an international assortment of blue-bereted soldiers pack the once-deserted hotels and restaurants. It is a strange and wonderful sight for Cambodians who have seen plenty of foreign troops on their soil before, but never troops who came to keep the peace.

"This is the beginning of peace in Cambodia," says an elderly man outside the U.N. headquarters in Phnom Penh, obviously moved by the sight of a group of French airmen wandering by.

But the countryside yields a different picture, one dominated by the Khmer Rouge, the Maoist army that ruled this country from 1975 to 1978, killing more than a million Cambodians in a brutal attempt to build a purely agrarian society.

Some fear that the Khmer Rouge could undo the intricately negotiated peace process aimed at ending Cambodia's long nightmare of bloodshed.

While other combatants are turning in their weapons, the Khmer Rouge continue to be extraordinarily active, entering villages close to the forests at night and launching major assaults to take ground from the government ahead of the full deployment of the expected 16,000 U.N. troops, only half of whom are now on the ground.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan refused again to give up weapons, as required by the peace accord signed in October, but that he did agree to participate in a ministerial conference today on aid to rebuild Cambodia.

Khieu Samphan conferred yesterday with other Cambodian officials, including Prince Sihanouk. Cambodian Premier Hun Sen and the leaders of two smaller rebel factions failed to persuade the Khmer Rouge to start disarming, said Eng Thai Sam, a spokesman for one guerrilla faction, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front.

Western diplomats have tried to portray the continuing fighting as insignificant, nothing more than the actions of a handful of renegade guerrillas operating outside the Khmer Rouge command structure.

But French Gen. Michel Loridon, second in command of U.N. forces in Cambodia, disagrees. "They can control their men in the field," he said in Phnom Penh recently, asserting that continuing offensives are part of a concerted Khmer Rouge effort to regain control of the country.

The Khmer Rouge has refused to take part in the demobilization process, holding back its men from U.N.-supervised containment areas and denying U.N. forces access to its territory as part of the lengthily negotiated peace arrangement.

The guerrillas say they won't cooperate until the United Nations can guarantee that there are no foreign troops left on Cambodian soil. They claim that the Vietnamese -- who invaded this country in 1978, chasing the Khmer Rouge from power -- have not all left.

The Vietnamese officially withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, leaving behind the government they had installed. Diplomats say that all their forces have left. They say that the Khmer Rouge forces are merely stalling for time to secure more territory. The claims are seen as a vehicle to justify repeated violations of the cease-fire and to stoke the coals of nationalism among Cambodians whose fear and hatred of the Khmer Rouge is rivaled only by their hatred of the Vietnamese.

And while there are signs of hope in the countryside -- the image of a U.N. vehicle passing through a remote village as skinny children wave excitedly leaves a powerful impression -- the peace outside Phnom Penh looks a good deal like the war that Cambodians have become so accustomed to.

On a rutted and dusty track in the central province of Kompong Thom, the scene of some of the most severe and frequent cease-fire violations, a rickety horse cart pulls 37-year-old Srei Nou slowly toward the provincial hospital 12 miles away.

Bathed in the golden light of the early morning, blood-soaked bandages cover her right thigh and foot where Khmer Rouge guerrillas shot her the night before during a raid on her village, Phum Kro Per.

A group of people looks on, their faces showing concern for the wounded woman. But no one seems particularly shocked by the sight. They've seen it before.

The night before, from Kompong Thom town, the war-battered but still picturesque provincial capital on the banks of the Sen river, thunderous booms could be heard for almost a half-hour, one after the other, as the Khmer Rouge rained shells upon villages 25 miles or so to the northeast. Government soldiers stood around their communications shack listening to scratchy radio reports of the fighting coming in from the field. They could have been listening to the ballgame.

Crudely fashioned bunkers line the route from Kompong Thom to the town of Siem Reap, a day's drive away on the ribbon of bomb craters and fragments of pavement that passes for a major road. Machine-gun nests sit below the shells of bridges blown out long ago.

The frequent detours required along the route are full of tension: There is always the possibility that land-mines have been planted. In certain places, mines can be seen lying on the ground on the edges of the road.

Two hours out of Kompong Thom there's a makeshift camp for "internally displaced people," as the villagers who have had to flee the fighting are called, although they are refugees in every sense of the word. There are more than 18,000 in Kompong Thom and nearly 3,000 here where people are living on the ground in the middle of an inhospitable and barren expanse of land..

This is no oasis. Blue plastic sheets donated by OXFAM are the only things sheltering people as they are assaulted by swarms of flies and hot bursts of wind. In a couple weeks, the monsoon will begin to blow, dropping great volumes of rain. This ground could well be under inches of water.

It is not an easy place to rebuild lives. The land is often flooded and the soil of low quality. The rains will bring malaria and tuberculosis, which together have claimed more Cambodian lives than the war. Water is in scant supply, and clean water is non-existent. The only bit of liquid around is a muddy puddle about a mile away where women scoop buckets to carry back to their families.

But while this land poses great challenges for the people coming back to hopes of peace, it is better than the war and the squalid refugee camps they have endured in exile.

It is their homeland.

Ul Sarith, 33, who lost several relatives in the Pol Pot years, takes a break from piling thatch onto his new roof and reflects on the changing times. "The last time I was in Cambodia, we worried about the Khmer Rouge and how to stay alive," he said. "Now my biggest concern is how to build a house."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad