Cambodia: Where a Funeral Vigil Is Part of the Election Campaign


Kroch Chmar, Cambodia.--In Cambodia, a dead body still draws a crowd.

After 25 years of civil war, savage bombing, foreign invasions and genocide, the hushed villagers outside Nam Saroeun's one-room thatched hut were hardly naive voyeurs. Nor were they simply mourners. Everyone knew that the 34-year-old tobacco farmer, shot to death where he lay sleeping with his three-year-old son, had been an activist for the most powerful political party opposing the government.

And so, the silent vigil could also be said to be the kickoff of th Kroch Chmar election campaign.

Voter registration for what is billed as Cambodia's first "democratic" elections had ended only hours before. Nationwide, voters -- some 95 percent of those eligible -- signed up to vote. The election begins today and continues through Thursday.

In October 1991, Cambodia's warring factions signed a peace accord calling for a U.N. supervised cease-fire, elections and reconstruction. The U.N. mounted its largest peacekeeping operation in history, marshaling 22,000 troops and administrators the tune of $2 billion.

But by the time Nam Saroeun was struck down 10 months later, the peace accord was in tatters. The agreement's lofty language of reconciliation couldn't be translated in Cambodia's still-flourishing culture of hatred and greed.

Almost immediately, the fanatical Khmer Rouge had refused to disarm and let U.N. peacekeepers into the territory it controls.

In five months of pre-election bloodletting, the government waged a terror campaign against dissidents like Nam Saroeun, the Khmer Rouge began "ethnic cleansing" of Vietnamese settlers in Cambodia, and purges started in other political parties. U.N. voting cards were confiscated by the government and the Khmer Rouge. Government employees, including teachers and soldiers, were told they would be fired if they didn't vote for the government party. Villagers were beaten, threatened and bribed by all sides.

Most ominously, in early April, the Khmer Rouge, who had refused to field candidates in the race, broke all contact with the United Nations around the country and began attacking U.N. peacekeepers. (Fourteen U.N. peacekeepers have been killed and more than 50 wounded in Cambodia).

"It's impossible to have a free and fair election with this kind of violence," said Theo Noel, the top U.N. electoral official in the province where Nam Saroeun was assassinated.

U.N. officials fear the Khmer Rouge may be able to stop the voting in the 20 percent of the country it controls. Cambodians traumatized by two decades of war and genocide will arrive at the polls to find heavily armed U.N. peacekeepers in flak jackets and helmets.

"The peace accord is not being observed, and so I will not permit Cambodians in this area to vote," said Gen. Nek Vont, a Khmer Rouge commander in northwestern Cambodia, in a recent interview.

In eastern Cambodia, near where Nam Saroeun was murdered, villagers had registered at first, but Khmer Rouge cadres had confiscated their cards. Registration stopped when the Khmer Rouge took U.N. peacekeepers hostage and held them overnight. The venerable Hiem Sok, a Buddhist monk visiting the village later said, "If people want to vote and the Khmer Rouge say 'no,' what can the U.N. do about that?"

Very little, U.N. officials concede. The Security Council has not authorized U.N. troops in Cambodia to take offensive action to enforce the accord. Peacekeepers in Cambodia have confined their powers to monitoring violations of the peace accord and dressing down the four factions for refusing to cooperate.

"The only card the U.N. has to play is to threaten to pull out of Cambodia," says one high level peacekeeper. "But the U.N. is in trouble in Bosnia and Somalia and needs a 'win' in Cambodia, and the factions all know it."

Like the hushed witnesses outside Nam Saroeun's house, most Cambodians are too frightened to do anything but watch what's happening in their country in silence. Campaign rallies are peopled by government employees who have been ordered to attend. There is no free-wheeling political discussion.

Outside Nam Saroeun's house the morning after his murder, the mute crowd posed a question. Will murders like his and a nationwide frenzy of violence persuade these just-enfranchised voters that it is too dangerous to vote for candidates they support rather than those they fear?

Barbara Shenstone, a U.N. official in charge of the elections in the district where Nam Saroeun was killed, says, "The violence is palpable. Everyone is armed. Bodies float down the Mekong, bound hand and foot. Two recently had been tortured and shot through the left eye. A Vietnamese fisherman was ordered over to the river bank and executed. The head of a Khmer Rouge cadre was found mounted on a post. It doesn't even matter who it is. The Cambodians get the message: 'Watch out.' "

Judith Coburn has covered Cambodia since 1970. Her current work in Cambodia is supported by an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship. She wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

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